Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Appeals Court: State Not Liable for Corral Canyon Fire
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal has rejected an attempt to hold the state liable for property damaged in the 2007 Corral Canyon fire in Malibu.
Div. Four on Monday sustained a demurrer to a dangerous condition of public property and nuisance action by homeowners who alleged the state was liable for not blocking vehicular access and entry to a cave in Malibu State Park known to attract partiers who lit bonfires.
A bonfire built in the cave on the night of Nov. 23, 2007, ignited chaparral on the surrounding hillsides in the early hours of the following morning. The fire burned almost 5,000 acres, destroyed more than 50 homes and damaged many others, and injured six firefighters as it spread through the canyon toward the ocean.
‘No Inherent Defect’
Writing for the panel, Presiding Justice Norman L. Epstein noted that dismissal was proper because the allegations involved the wrongful conduct of third parties and suggested no inherent defect in the property itself.
The homeowners filed suit against the state after their claims with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board were rejected. They contended the cave and surrounding area had been popular for late-night parties and bonfires for decades, and that the cave was covered by graffiti, littered with broken beer bottles and blackened by soot.
Alleging that the state maintained the property in such a way that it created a substantial risk of injury and damage to surrounding properties, the homeowners argued that the state should have restricted vehicular access to the cave and its surroundings by putting up a gate. They also contended that the state should have placed bars or other barriers on the cave’s lone entrance.
Government Code Sec. 835 allows a public entity to be held liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of property, which Sec. 830 defines as “a condition…that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial or insignificant) risk of injury when such property…is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert L. Hess, however, granted the state’s demurrer and dismissed the action, and Epstein agreed on appeal that the homeowners failed to state a dangerous condition or nuisance claim.
Citing Zelig v. County of Los Angeles (2002) 27 Cal.4th 1112—in which the California Supreme Court rejected a similar claim by the family of a woman who was shot and killed by her ex-husband at a courthouse where she was awaiting a hearing in their dissolution proceedings—he explained that the homeowners failed to identify a defect in the cave itself or in the nearby vehicular access to that area of the park.
Rejecting calls that the cave’s entrance should have been blocked and access to its surroundings prevented, Epstein observed:
“Barring the entrance to the cave might have prevented third parties from building a bonfire inside the cave, but it would not have prevented them from building a bonfire outside the cave, thereby presenting the same (or even greater) risk of a brush fire. Similarly, blocking nearby vehicular access with a gate might have impeded entry from that particular location, but it would not have prevented individuals from entering the park, or from bringing firewood and alcohol into the park. As in Zelig, the absence of barriers did not increase or intensify the risk of injury.”
Justices Nora M. Manella and Steven C. Suzukawa joined Epstein in his opinion.
The case is Avedon v. State of California, 10 S.O.S. 4264.
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