Friday, August 2, 2019
Court of Appeal:
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal held yesterday that a stairway in the woods was a “trail,” affirming summary judgment in favor of the state based on trail immunity, but relieving the state of an award against it for attorney fees and costs in the amount of $22,139.75.
Justice Tracie L. Brown of Div. Four wrote the opinion which affirms a judgment in favor of the defendant, California State Department of Parks and Recreation, in a premises lability action brought by Michele Lee. She incurred an injury while descending a stairway at Bootjack Campground in Mt. Tamalpais State Park, located in Marin County.
Brown said the flight of steps—which she described as “a stone stairway, built into a hill”—“is a ‘trail,’ or at least an ‘integral part’ of a trail, within the meaning of Government Code section 831.4, subdivision (b).”
The jurist rejected the contention that a “stairway” cannot also be a “trail.” She explained:
“Compared to a typical staircase connecting two floors in a building, the Bootjack stairway is flatter and longer; it is winding rather than straight; it is built into the path on a hill; and it is made from crude, natural materials. In fact, the Bootjack stairway’s design closely resembles a trail. Although this trail’s design contains stone steps, courts have consistently held that the nature of the trail’s surface is irrelevant to determining immunity and that immunity extends to claims arising from the trail’s design and maintenance.”
2000 Opinion Cited
Lee pointed to the 2000 Court of Appeal opinion in Treweek v. City of Napa which says that property which is not “in and of itself” a trail is subject to immunity if it is “essential to” a trail. Trail immunity was inapplicable the stairway, she argued, because it is inessential in light of the park also offering an ADA compliant path.
Brown said the utterance in Treweek was mere dictum. She added:
“It would be illogical to find that State Parks loses immunity by offering an alternative, ADA-compliant route to members of the public who cannot climb stairs. Accordingly, the Treweek court could not have intended ‘essential’ to mean ‘absolutely necessary,’ as Lee claims. Instead, it suffices that the stairway at issue is essential for campers to ascend and descend the relatively steep hillside trail more safely, easily, and quickly. We thus agree with the trial court that, even if the stairway is not itself a trail, it is an integral part of a trail such that statutory immunity still applies.”
Costs, Attorney Fees
The trial judge invoked Code of Civil Procedure §1038 which authorizes awards of costs, including attorney fees, to governmental entities where an action was not brought “with reasonable cause and in the good faith belief that there was a justifiable controversy under the facts and law.”
Brown said Lee’s action does not come under the statute.
“[N]o governing case law explicitly held that stairways are trails as a matter of law, such that section 831.4 would always bar suit,” she reasoned, adding:
“Given the judicial trend in trail immunity law toward broadening immunity, it was predictable—but by no means certain—that a court would determine the Bootjack stairway to be a trail or at least an integral part of one.”
The case is Lee v. California Department of Parks and Recreation, A154021.
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