Wednesday, July 9, 2003
Court of Appeal Rules:
School District Liable for Injury Resulting From Gate Location
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
An open schoolyard gate, constructed next to a heavily trafficked and non-signalized intersection, may constitute a dangerous condition of public property, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
The Simi Valley Unified School District was properly held liable for injuries suffered by a student who was struck in the crosswalk at the intersection, Div. Six concluded. It was the fourth time that the case of Jennifer Joyce, a 13-year-old junior high school student when the accident occurred in 1989, had been before the panel.
The district originally prevailed on a demurrer, the trial judge ruling that the opening in the gate was not a dangerous condition as a matter of law and that the district was thus immune from liability for the accident occurring off its premises. The Court of Appeal reversed in an opinion that was later depublished by the Supreme Court.
The first trial resulted in a verdict for the district and the City of Simi Valley, the only defendants left in the case. The motorist whose car hit the then-teenager settled out prior to trial for $50,000.
The Court of Appeal, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed as to the city but reversed as to the school district. The trial judge erred, the justices explained, in telling jurors the district could only be held liable if there was a physical defect in the property.
A new trial resulted in a $1.97 million judgment, which was reversed in another unpublished opinion, this time on the ground of attorney misconduct. The third trial, however, resulted in a judgment for nearly $2.9 million plus costs, which the panel yesterday affirmed.
Justice Kenneth Yegan cited Bonanno v. Central Contra Costa Transit Authority (2003) 30 Cal.4th 139. The court held there that a bus stop was a dangerous condition of public property and that the transit authority could be held liable for not moving the stop, when it had reason to know that patrons had to cross a dangerous intersection in order to get to it, and that motorists often did not stop for pedestrians at the intersection’s marked crosswalk.
The plaintiff in that case waited for traffic to stop, then walked across. The car that stopped for her, however, was struck from behind and lurched into her.
In Joyce’s case, Yegan noted, the school principal testified that he had ordered a hole cut in the fence shortly after the school opened in 1970, in order to facilitate student access, and that he did so without the benefit of a traffic study or expert advice. An engineer testified that traffic in the area had become quite heavy as the community had grown, and that motorists often sped through the crosswalk.
Several witnesses testified that they had complained about the dangers, and that screeching tires and near-collisions had become a regular occurrence before the accident. One school bus driver testified that the crosswalk was difficult to see because it was at the crest of a hill.
Yegan concluded that the school district, like the transit authority in Bonanno, failed “to provide adequate safeguards against a known dangerous condition.”
The justice went on to reject the contention that Ventura Superior Court Judge Thomas Hutchins should have granted a new trial after Joyce’s counsel, Beverly Hills practitioner Gary Dordick, referred in closing argument to an incident that occurred when the jury was taken to view the accident scene. At the time, a truck approached the crosswalk and failed to yield until the bailiff gestured to the driver.
The judge gave a cautionary instruction when Dordick brought up the incident, and Yegan said that was enough.
Yegan also concluded that the district is not entitled to deduct more than $100,000 in medical bills from the judgment. Those costs were paid as part of the employee benefits plan of the plaintiff’s mother, who worked for the district at the time.
Government Code Sec. 985 requires that a personal injury judgment be reduced by the amount of medical services provided by a public entity defendant. But Yegan agreed with the trial judge that the statute does not apply when the money is paid as an employee benefit unrelated to possible tort liability.
In a separate concurrence, Yegan acknowledged that he had dissented in the first appeal, believing at the time that “[s]chool districts have no duty to provide traffic protection to students walking to school.” In the subsequent appeals, however, he authored the majority opinions, treating Justice—now presiding justice—Arthur Gilbert’s opinion on the first appeal as the law of the case.
After Bonanno, Yegan explained, it is now settled that Gilbert’s opinion was “prescient.” It is also clear, he said, that “the District’s decision to maintain the open school gate substantially contributed to plaintiff’s injuries even though the school district had no control over the street and the marked crosswalk.”
The case is Joyce v. Simi Valley Unified School District, B154365.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company