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Seeing the Median Through the Trees: Public Entities May Be Liable for Dangerous Conditions of Public Property, Even if a Third Party’s Negligence Precipitates an Accident

In the recent case of Cordova v. City of Los Angeles, (2015) 190 Cal.Rptr.3d 850, the California Supreme Court ruled that trees placed closely to a roadway within a public median may be sufficient to expose the public entity to liability, even if a negligent third-party caused the injured party to strike the trees.

Cordova arises from a fatal traffic accident in a Los Angeles neighborhood. Cristyn Cordova was driving her car westbound in the inside lane of Colorado Boulevard, with four passengers in her car. Another vehicle, driven by Rostislav Shnayder, veered into the side of Cristyn’s car forcing it over a curb and onto a grassy center median of Colorado Boulevard. Both vehicles were traveling well over the speed limit. Cristyn’s car struck one of several large magnolia trees planted in the

City’s median, approximately seven feet from the inside lane of the roadway. Cristyn and three of the occupants in her car were killed. The negligent driver (Shnayder) was arrested at the scene and later convicted of four counts of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence.

Cristyn’s parents filed a wrongful death action against the City of Los Angeles under Government Code section 835, alleging that the magnolia trees on the grassy median were too close to the travel portion of the roadway and posed an unreasonable risk to motorists who might lose control of their vehicles. Plaintiffs claimed that this dangerous condition proximately caused their decedents’ fatal injuries.
Section 835 makes a public entity liable for injury proximately caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the risk of injury was reasonably foreseeable and the entity had sufficient notice of the danger to take corrective measures. A dangerous condition exists on public property if it “is physically damaged, deteriorated, or defective in such a way as to foreseeably endanger those using the property itself.” (Bonanno v. Central Contra Costa Transit Authority (2003) 30 Cal.4th 139, 148.) A condition is not dangerous if a court “determines as a matter of law that the risk created by the condition was of such a minor, trivial, or insignificant nature in view of the surrounding circumstances that no reasonable person would conclude that the condition created a substantial risk of injury when such property or adjacent property was used with due care in a manner in which it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used.” (Gov’t. Code § 830.2.)

The City filed a successful motion for summary judgment by placing the blame on the negligent third party driver, Shnayder. The City argued the street and median were not dangerous and the accident was caused by Shnayder’s vehicle rather than the configuration of the roadway. The City contended its liability hinged “on whether an aspect of public property somehow caused, facilitated, or encouraged the third party conduct” of Shnayder. Without such evidence, the City argued the plaintiffs failed to raise any triable issue.

Plaintiffs responded by producing evidence that the subject roadway constituted a dangerous condition, supported by declarations from experts who opined that the proximity of the magnolia trees to the travel portion of the roadway presented a significant and foreseeable danger to the public; summaries of 142 traffic accidents on Colorado Boulevard between January 1998 and April 2009; and publications discussing the “clear zone” concept of roadside safety.

The Court of Appeal affirmed judgment for the City, explaining that the configuration of the roadway was not a dangerous condition because “[t]here is nothing about Colorado Boulevard that would cause a person driving at or near the speed limit to suddenly veer into the magnolia trees. Plaintiffs do not contend the view of the median was in any way obscured such that the tree was a surprise obstacle in the roadway, or that the median and trees caused cars to travel at unsafe speed … such that persons using the roadway with due care would be hit by such vehicles.” (Cordova v. City of Los Angeles, (2015) 190 Cal.Rptr.3d 850 at 2.) In other words, the appellate court agreed that in order for the City to face liability, the alleged dangerous condition (roadway and median trees) must have caused the actions of Shnayder that precipitated the accident.

The Supreme Court flatly disagreed. In reversing the decision, the Court held that plaintiffs were not required to show that the allegedly dangerous condition of the trees in the median caused the negligent third party conduct that led to the accident in order to establish a dangerous condition of public property. Analyzing section 835, the Supreme Court concluded plaintiffs were not required to show that the allegedly dangerous condition caused the third party conduct that precipitated the accident. Instead, it was sufficient for plaintiffs to establish that the City’s roadway was “in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury” and that “the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition.” (Gov’t Code § 835.)

Today we hold only that … a governmental entity is not categorically immune from liability where it is alleged that a dangerous condition of property caused the injury that the plaintiffs suffered in an accident, but did not cause the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.
(Cordova v. City of Los Angeles, (2015) 190 Cal.Rptr.3d 850 at 8.)

It is relatively common for government entities to move for summary judgment in actions for alleged dangerous condition of public property. In light of Cordova, however, government entities may not trump liability in such motions by blaming an intervening third party tortfeasor. In this case, the trees closely situated to the street may ultimately be sufficient to establish liability against the City, even if the trees or roadway did not cause the third party driver’s (Shnayder’s) veering of her vehicle.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janice Walshok is an associate at Tyson & Mendes LLP. She has experience with conducting civil jury trials and specializes in insurance bad faith, premises liability, and high net worth insurance issues. Contact Janice at 858.263.4121 or jwalshok@tysonmendes.com.

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