Monday, April 14, 2008
Court: City, School District Not Liable For Fatal Crosswalk Accident
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The city of Oakland and the Oakland Unified School District did not contribute to the death of a student who was struck by a car and killed while crossing the street on her way to school, the First District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Div. Four affirmed Alameda County Superior Court Judge James A. Richman’s grant of summary judgment, finding that the marked crosswalk at a city intersection where six pedestrians were struck by an unlicensed motorist did not create a dangerous condition, and that the school district was not responsible for the safety of its students outside of the school premises.
The pedestrians, which included one adult and five children, were struck as they were crossing a city street on their way to school. One of the children was killed, and the surviving pedestrians and family members filed suit against the city for the alleged dangerous condition of its intersection.
The also brought a claim against the school district for its alleged negligence in failing to assure safe school access for its students.
In support of their claims the plaintiffs primarily relied upon Vehicle Code Sec. 21368, which provides that pedestrian crosswalks established “in a roadway contiguous to a school building or the grounds thereof” shall be painted yellow, and have additional signage warning of a school crossing. The statute also provides that crosswalks within 2,800 feet of school grounds “may” be painted yellow, and that all other crosswalks “shall not” be painted yellow.
However Richman granted summary judgment for the defendants, concluding that the city intersection did not create a dangerous condition, and that the district was not responsible for the safety of students outside school premises.
On appeal, Justice Patricia K. Sepulveda wrote to agree that the city intersectio did not create a dangerous condition.
Noting that the only entrance to the school was three blocks away from the intersection where the accident occurred, and 50 feet away from the periphery of the school’s property, which was surrounded by a tall chain link fence, she wrote that, “[p]lainly, the School grounds were not contiguous with the crosswalk roadway if the primary meaning of contiguous—physically touching—is applied.”
Sepulveda rejected the plaintiffs’ argument advocating for a “looser” definition of “contiguous” than that set out in Lewis v. City of Los Angeles (1982) 137 Cal.App.3d 518, which held that the word contiguous, as used in Sec. 21368, does not require an actual physical touching between the crosswalk roadway and school grounds so long as there is a “natural” or “physical” relationship between the roadway, crosswalk, and school.
“While the statute was undoubtedly meant to protect school children, and perhaps deserves a broad interpretation to effectuate that intent, the statute also clearly establishes three categories of crosswalks,” she wrote.
Thus, she reasoned, if Sec. 21368 is interpreted to mandate yellow crosswalks on all roadways near schools having a “natural relationship” to the school, the statute’s category for crosswalks within 2,800 feet of school grounds would be rendered meaningless.
Concluding that Sec. 21368 was inapplicable, Sepulveda noted that the Lewis court had found no “natural relationship” between a crosswalk and school grounds where the crosswalk was separated by a city block from the school grounds, and that no “natural relationship” existed between the school and the intersection at issue.
Sepulveda also rejected the plaintiff’s claims that the lack of a traffic signal or absence of crossing guards constituted proof of a dangerous condition, and held the trial court had properly found as a matter of law the intersection at issue did not itself create a substantial risk of injury.
Turning to the school district’s liability, Sepulveda reiterated the common law principle codified in Education Code Sec. 44808 that school districts are not responsible for the safety of students outside school property unless there has been a specific undertaking by the school district with direct supervision by a district employee.
Although the school district had analyzed traffic safety around the school grounds as part of its California Environmental Quality Act Environmental Impact Report, Sepulveda reasoned that the report was designed to protect the environment, and because of the report’s specialized purpose it was “questionable” whether it could ever constitute an assumption of district responsibility for student safety.
Even allowing for that possibility, Sepulveda wrote, “it is plain that no responsibility was assumed here.”
Counsel for the district, Gary T. Lafayette of Lafayette & Kumagai, told the MetNews
“It’s a big victory for school districts everywhere in this time of severe budget cutes because otherwise it would be difficult for school districts to continue to meet their primary objective of educating the students of California and also assume this type of liability.”
Oakland Deputy City Attorney Christopher Kee said the court’s opinion reaffirmed the “bread and butter principles of dangerous condition law,” but predicted that the plaintiffs would appeal based on the Lewis decision, and that the eventual outcome of the case would “have resonance in other cases.”
“That’s the most positive thing that will come out of this case. It was such a tragic case.”
Plaintiffs’ counsel Michael B. Moore could not be reached for comment, and co-counsel Herbert W. Yanowitz declined to comment.
Justices Timothy A. Reardon and Maria P. Rivera joined Sepulveda in her opinion.
The case is Cerna v. City of Oakland, A115296.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company