State Supreme Court Expands Government Liability for Dangerous Condition of Public Property
by Derek P. Cole on August 17, 2015
A car driving along a road is sideswiped by another car, causing it to veer into a median and hit a tree. Tragically, all but one of the car’s occupants is killed; the sole survivor is seriously injured. Although the driver of the other car was clearly at fault, the city that maintained the tree is sued under the theory that the tree’s placement in the median was a “dangerous condition of public property.” Can the city be held liable?
Yes, says the State Supreme Court. In Cordova v. City of Los Angeles, the Court held that local agencies may be liable for a dangerous condition of public property even if that condition did not affect the negligent third party’s actions. Thus, although the tree in this case had nothing to do with the other driver’s poor driving, it was still a cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries, making the city potentially responsible.
California public agencies have broad immunities in civil lawsuits. Agencies generally are not liable unless a statute makes them so.
One basis for liability against public agencies is when they allow a dangerous condition to exist on public property. A group of statutes govern when agencies may be liable under this basis, but the principal statute is Government Code section 835, which makes agencies liable whenever they allow public property to exist in a dangerous condition, injury is proximately caused by that condition, and the agencies could reasonably foresee the risk of the injury.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In Cordova, the city had secured dismissal in the lower courts on the ground that its tree did not cause the third party’s negligent driving. The Supreme Court reversed, finding this result inconsistent with the statutes governing dangerous-condition liability. The Court concluded the lower courts had effectively reversed the causation analysis, focusing incorrectly on whether the city tree had caused the third party’s negligent driving, when the relevant question should have been whether the tree was a cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries.
After attempting to square its ruling with earlier precedent, the Court was careful to note the limits of its holding. Stating it was only rejecting the city’s “categorical” position, the court observed that the plaintiffs would still need to prove a number of other ultimate facts to win their case. As it explained:
Our conclusion does not mean, as the City fears, that a public entity may be held liable whenever a plaintiff is injured after a third party’s conduct causes the plaintiff’s vehicle to strike a hard, fixed object on public property close to a road, such as a light post, a telephone pole, a traffic light, a stop sign, or a bridge abutment.
What the Ruling Means for Public Agencies
Despite this caveat in the Cordova opinion, local agencies can surely expect more lawsuits as a result of the ruling. Indeed, Cordova is the second Supreme Court ruling in two years to expand liability for maintaining public beautification improvements. In a 2014 case, City of Pasadena v. Superior Court, the Court held local agencies could be liable for inverse condemnation when a city-owned tree fell on and damaged private property. (Our article about this case can be found here.)
Overall, Cordova, like Pasadena, means the cost of providing public beautification improvements will be greater, as agencies must incorporate the expenses associated with private-party lawsuits (e.g., damage awards, litigation expenses, and higher insurance premiums) into their total project costs. Some may feel this is a small price to pay to ensure those like the Cordova plaintiffs (the parents of the deceased driver and vehicle occupants) are adequately compensated for their injuries. Others may see the expansion in liability as opening another “deep pocket” and justifying lawsuit abuse. However the opinion is viewed, local agencies should budget for the additional liability accordingly.