Friday, August 14, 2015
S.C. Revives Claim Against Los Angeles Over Deadly Auto Crash
Justices Say Lower Courts Misapplied Immunity to Case Involving Dangerous Condition
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A plaintiff suing a public entity, on the theory that a dangerous condition of public property and the negligence of a third party were concurrent causes of injury, need not prove that the dangerous condition was a cause of the third party’s negligence, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices unanimously held that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Fahey and Div. One of this district’s Court of Appeal misconstrued Government Code §835.
The statute waives sovereign immunity “if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, [and] that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred” and that 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 . . . notice of the dangerous condition . . . a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.”
Eagle Rock Crash
Yesterday’s ruling reinstates the City of Los Angeles as a defendant in an action resulting from a 2008 car crash in Eagle Rock.
Driver Cristyn Cordova, 19; her sister Toni, 16; their brother Andrew 15; and a family friend, Jason Hernandez, 19, died as a result of the crash. Cristyn Cordova’s boyfriend, Carlos Campos, 19, was seriously injured.
Cristyn Cordova was driving westbound on Colorado Blvd. approaching Highland View Ave. when a vehicle driven by Rotislav Shnayder veered into the side of Cordova’s vehicle. The Cordova vehicle then spun out of control and struck one of several large magnolia trees planted in the median.
The Cordova family named the city as one of several defendants in their wrongful death action. They claimed that the trees constituted a dangerous condition for which the city was responsible because they were too close to the traffic lanes, posing an unreasonable risk to motorists who might lose control of their vehicles.
The city responded that there was no dangerous condition and that the sole cause of the collision was the negligence of Shnayder. The parties agreed that both vehicles were traveling well in excess of the posted 35 mph limit, although the exact speeds were disputed.
The investigating detective told reporters following the crash that there appeared to have been a third vehicle involved, and that the three cars were likely racing, although Shnayder was not charged with racing because it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Shnayder was convicted in August 2010 of four counts of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence, and received consecutive maximum sentences of a year in jail on each count. He was acquitted on charges of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.
As for the civil action, Fahey granted the city’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that the tree “does not constitute a dangerous condition of public property” because, among other things, it “did not cause the accident that killed the Cordova children.”
In affirming, the Court of Appeal said the tree could not have been a dangerous condition because it did not “contribute[ ] to Shnayder’s criminally negligent driving” and there was “nothing about Colorado Boulevard that would cause a person driving at or near the speed limit to suddenly veer into the magnolia trees.” To avoid the immunity, the court suggested the plaintiffs would have to show, for example, that the tree obstructed Shnayder’s vision or somehow “caused cars to travel at unsafe speed.”
But Justice Leondra Kruger, writing for the high court, said the lower courts had conflated the s issues of whether public property was in a “dangerous” condition and whether that condition was a proximate cause of the collision.
“[P]laintiffs in this case must show that a dangerous condition of property — that is, a condition that creates a substantial risk of injury to the public — proximately caused the fatal injuries their decedents suffered as a result of the collision with Shnayder’s car,” she wrote. “But nothing in the statute requires plaintiffs to show that the allegedly dangerous condition also caused the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.”
She cited Ducey v. Argo Sales Co. (1979) 25 Cal.3d 707, holding that the state could be held liable under §835 for failing to provide a median barrier on a freeway, where the absence of a barrier contributed to injuries the plaintiffs suffered when another driver crossed the median and collided with their vehicle.
The Ducey court, Kruger noted, “expressly rejected the state’s argument that it could not be held liable because the conduct of the other driver, rather than the lack of a median barrier, was ‘the precipitating cause of the accident,’ explaining that nothing in section 835 imposes such a limitation on a public entity’s liability.”
The Court of Appeal, she went on to say, erred in relying on Zelig v. County of Los Angeles (2002) 27 Cal.4th 1112, which held that the county’s alleged failure to install various safety devices did not subject it to liability for the death of a woman shot to death in the courthouse. While the plaintiffs in that case claimed that conditions at the courthouse facilitated the third party criminal conduct, the case “neither holds nor suggests that plaintiffs in such circumstances must prove that a dangerous condition of property not only contributed to their injuries, but also contributed to the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.”
Cordova v. City of Los Angeles, 15 S.O.S. xxxx, was argued in the Supreme Court by Martin N. Buchanan of San Diego for the plaintiffs, Deputy City Attorney Sara Ugaz for the defendant, and Timothy T. Coates of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland for the California State Association of Counties and League of California Cities, defendant’s amici.
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