Friday, February 22, 2008
Court: Public Entities Not Liable for Dangerous Conditions Absent ‘Negligence’
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A public entity cannot be held liable under the Government Claims Act for injury caused by a dangerous condition on its property unless the plaintiff can show that the entity created the condition negligently or wrongfully, or had notice of it for a long enough time to protect against the danger, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Rejecting an argument by a minor seriously injured in an automobile accident that occurred at an intersection under the control of the County of San Joaquin who argued that he was entitled to judgment because he showed that the county created the intersection, the court held that the plain meaning of Government Code Sec. 835 required the plaintiff to also establish that the county had done so negligently or willfully.
The statute says that “a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes” various circumstances, including “that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury,” and “either...[a] negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or ...[t]he public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition under Section 835.2 a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.”
Thomas Metcalf was driving his parents’ car in 2001 when he approached a “T” intersection that required motorists to come to a stop, and then turn either right or left. Railroad tracks crossed the road just before the intersection, and the road rose in elevation leading to the tracks, and from there descended to the intersection.
Prior to the tracks, a “stop ahead” sign, railroad crossing indicators, and a stop sign were all posted. After the tracks, but before the intersection, the pavement was marked with a stop legend and a white line indicating where motorists were required to stop, and a yellow sign was posted indicating with black arrows that motorists must turn.
As Metcalf approached the intersection, he stopped prior to the railroad tracks. However, he then entered the intersection and collided with a truck. Metcalf could not recall how the accident occurred because of injuries sustained in the collision, and a passenger testified that she did not remember whether he stopped, or whether she had told Metcalf that he needed to do so.
Metcalf sued for damages, alleging that the intersection was a dangerous condition that created a substantial risk of injury which the county should have known about. He contended that the county “negligently and carelessly” failed to correct the dangerous condition, and that he was injured as a result.
At trial before San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Humphreys, the jury was instructed—with the parties’ agreement—that Metcalf was required to prove that the county owned or controlled the property; that it was in a dangerous condition; that the condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of this type of incident; that the condition was created by negligent or wrongful conduct of a county employee acting within the scope of his employment, or that the county had notice for long enough to protect against such danger; and that the dangerous condition was a substantial factor in causing the incident.
The jury found that the county controlled the property, and that the property was in a dangerous condition which created a reasonably foreseeable risk of such an accident. However, it found that the condition was not created by the negligent or wrongful conduct of an employee, and that the county lacked sufficient notice of the danger.
The trial court denied Metcalf’s motion for a new trial and entered judgment for the county, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the decision.
Metcalf argued to the Supreme Court that he was entitled to judgment because he had established that the county deliberately created and maintained the dangerous condition, and that establishing these elements was sufficient to make the county liable.
However, Justice Ming W. Chin wrote for the court Metcalf’s argument failed “both legally and factually.”
Chin wrote first that Metcalf’s argument was based on a false factual assumption that the jury had found that the county created the condition.
“Although the jury found the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident, it did not find that the County created that condition, much less that it did so deliberately,” he wrote.
Because Metcalf had failed to challenge the jury instructions, Chin concluded that he had therefore forfeited any right to argue on appeal that the court misinstructed the jury.
Chin then wrote that Metcalf’s argument failed legally because the plain language of Sec. 835 required a plaintiff to show not only that the defendant created the dangerous condition, but that it had done so negligently or wrongfully.
Rejecting Metcalf’s interpretation of a leading treatise on government tort liability practice, Chin wrote that “[a]ny expansive reading of that treatise as suggesting that merely creating a dangerous condition makes a public entity liable without the additional finding that it did so negligently (or had notice of the dangerous condition) would run afoul of section 835’s plain language…”
“[T]he operative question is not whether the public entity created the dangerous condition, or even whether it did so deliberately, but whether it did so negligently.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin R. Baxter, Carlos R. Moreno and Carol A. Corrigan joined Chin in his opinion.
Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote separately to concur in the result, noting that Metcalf had requested the jury instructions, so he could not complain that they were erroneous or incomplete.
However, she wrote in dissent that a plaintiff who showed that a public entity created a dangerous condition met the initial burden of showing negligence, and that a jury could therefore find that the entity liable unless the entity affirmatively established under Sec. 835.4 that the act or omission that created the condition was reasonable in light of the practicability and cost of alternatives.
“[T]he trial court’s instructions were incomplete, thus creating the possibility that the public entity defendant might, contrary to legislative intent, benefit from a section 835.4 defense to which it had not proven its entitlement,” she said. “The court should have further instructed the jury that creation of a dangerous condition is negligence, unless the public entity can show it was reasonable under the circumstances.”
The case is Metcalf v. County of San Joaquin, 08 S.O.S. 1173.
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