Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Public Entity Not Immune From Suit Over Bus Stop Location—S.C.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A public entity is not immune from liability for negligently locating a bus stop in a place where would-be riders face an unreasonable risk of being hit by traffic while walking to the stop, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 5-2 decision, the court affirmed a judgment for more than $1.6 million in favor of a Martinez woman hit by a car while walking to catch a bus to work.
“[T]he location of a bus stop may constitute a ‘dangerous condition’ of public property, within the meaning of Government Code sections 830 and 835, where, in order to reach the stop, bus patrons must cross a busy thoroughfare at an uncontrolled intersection,” Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for the court.
Justices Marvin Baxter and Janice Rogers Brown dissented, voicing worry about the effect of the decision on taxpayers and public services. “Reading the majority opinion is painful,” Brown wrote, “like watching a traffic accident in slow motion, because the majority’s misguided effort to compensate the victim of this accident will, quite foreseeably, victimize everyone else who is dependent on public transit.”
The plaintiff, Darlene Bonanno, was struck while crossing to catch a Central Contra Costa Transit Authority bus near her home in 1993.
Evidence at trial indicated that at around 7 a.m. on the day of the accident, she waited several minutes for traffic to pass at the intersection, which had a generally ignored crosswalk. Eventually, eastbound and westbound traffic stopped, and Bonanno started across. But as she walked in front of the eastbound car, another driver struck that car in the rear, pushing the vehicle forward into the plaintiff.
Investigation revealed that there had been complaints for years about the dangerousness of the bus stop’s location. In 1986, another woman sued after being struck by a car crossing the street to get to the stop, and her traffic expert testified that the stop should have been moved one block west and the intersection there—which had a stop sign at the time—signalized.
Eventually, the county did signalize that intersection, but the transit authority never moved the bus stop. As a result, witnesses testified, pedestrians who crossed at the signalized intersection had to walk on a narrow, often muddy, shoulder and—for at least a few feet—in the street in order to get to the bus stop.
After Bonanno’s accident, the bus stop was moved.
Bonanno sued the transit authority, the county, the hospital where she was treated, and the driver who caused the rear-end collision. All except the transit authority settled.
Jurors found the driver 88 percent responsible for the injuries, the hospital 10 percent responsible, and the county and transit authority each one percent at fault.
Judgment was entered against the transit authority for $1.59 million—representing the total economic damages less credits for payments by the settling defendants—plus $15,000, or one percent of the noneconomic damages. The First District Court of Appeal affirmed.
Werdegar said the Court of Appeal was correct under the applicable code sections, which hold that a public entity is not immune from liability for injury when it owns or controls property on which there is a dangerous condition resulting in injury.
The justice rejected the argument that the transit authority was immune because the county, not the authority, was responsible for the maintenance of the street and the placement of traffic signals and the transit authority could not move the bus stop without the county’s approval.
The transit authority is responsible for the bus stop, Werdegar said, citing the California Law Revision Commission’s comment on what subsequently became Sec. 830. The commission suggested that a public entity could be liable when “a condition on the adjacent property exposes those using the public property to a substantial risk of injury.”
The transit authority, Werdegar added, didn’t ask the county to move the bus stop until after Bonanno’s accident and thus cannot claim that it lacks responsibility for the failure to move it earlier.
The justice analogized the transit authority’s conduct to that of the city in Holmes v. City of Oakland (1968) 260 Cal.App.2d 378. The court in that case held that Oakland was responsible for the injuries of a child hit by a train while running on a right-of-way along a city street, saying the city created a dangerous condition by maintaining a street alongside railroad tracks, in an area where it was foreseeable that young children would cross the tracks on their way home from school.
She also cited a case in which a city that maintained a model airplane park was held liable for the electrocution of a man who grabbed the guy wire of his son’s out-of-control plane as it came in contact with uninsulated electrical lines across the street from the park. The city, the court held, should have foreseen that users of the park would occasionally lose control of their planes and be exposed to the danger of the wires when trying to recover them.
“[T]he transit authority] owned and controlled its own bus stop, and a condition of that property, its physical situation, caused users of the bus stop to be at risk from the immediately adjacent property, just as the model airplane flyers were at risk from the adjacent power lines....,” Werdegar wrote.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Ming Chin, and Carlos Moreno joined in the opinion.
Brown, in her dissent, adopted the argument asserted by more than 200 transit districts and other public entities in an amicus brief—that moving the bus stop would not have prevented the accident, since the rear-end collision could have occurred wherever the bus stop was located.
Her colleagues, she said, were being indifferent “to the real world consequences of [their] expansive doctrine of public tort liability,” an indifference that “is all the more inexcusable now because transit agencies, like other state and local agencies, are in crisis.”
As a result of the decision, she predicted, transit agencies will have to spend huge sums of money to conduct traffic safety analyses of the thousands and thousands of bus stops across the state, and will be forced to increase fares and cut service hours.
“Where you stand can depend on where you sit, and, let us be frank, Supreme Court justices don’t sit on buses very often,” she wrote.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company