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Court of Appeal: UC Regents Entitled to “Trail Immunity” in Connection With Student’s Death

The California Court of Appeal recently affirmed the lower court’s granting of summary judgment to the Regents of the University of California (“Regents”) in a case arising out of a tragic bicycle accident that occurred on the Great Meadow Bikeway located on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz (“UCSC”).  The case – Burgueno v. Regents of the University of California (2015) WL 9700324 – strengthens governmental immunity for injuries sustained on property open to the public for “recreational purposes.”

Adrian Burgueno, a UCSC student, was fatally injured in a bicycle accident on the Great Meadow Bikeway on February 10, 2011.  Adrian rode his bicycle to his photography class on the evening of the accident.  As Adrian was riding his bicycle home following class he was fatally injured on the downhill portion of the Great Meadow Bikeway.  Thereafter, Adrian’s mother and sister (“Plaintiffs”) brought suit against the Regents, alleging causes of action for dangerous condition of public property and wrongful death.

The Great Meadow Bikeway is a paved bicycle path that runs through a portion of the UCSC campus known as the “Great Meadow.”  The Great Meadow Bikeway serves as a thoroughfare for bicyclists to and from the central campus of UCSC.  Some bicyclists use the Great Meadow Bikeway for recreational purposes.  For instance, members of the Santa Cruz County Cycling Club use the Great Meadow Bikeway to access mountain bicycle paths located in the redwood forests near the USCS campus.  Automobiles and pedestrians are not allowed on the Great Meadow Bikeway.  There have been a number of bicycle accidents on the Great Meadow Bikeway since it was constructed in 1973.

Plaintiffs alleged in their complaint the Great Meadow Bikeway does not provide any access to recreational or scenic areas, but rather “serves the purpose of connecting the UCSC campus and downtown Santa Cruz.”  According to Plaintiffs, the evidence showed the Great Meadow Bikeway is a “major transportation corridor” designed and used for bicycle commuting to the UCSC campus, not recreation.  Plaintiffs further contended any incidental recreational use of the Great Meadow Bikeway was insufficient to make it a recreational trail.

With regard to their dangerous condition of public property cause of action, Plaintiffs alleged the Regents had actual knowledge that students used the Great Meadow Bikeway for commuting to campus at night, and knew or should have known that the bikeway was unsafe due to its downhill curve, sight limitations, lack of runoff areas, lack of adequate signage, lack of appropriate roadway markings, and lack of physical barriers to prevent nighttime use of the bikeway.

The Regents asserted several affirmative defenses, including governmental immunity under Government Code section 831.4.  Under Government Code section 831.4, a public entity is not liable for an injury caused by a condition of any of the following:

  • Any unpaved road which provides access to fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, riding, including animal and all types of vehicular riding, water sports, recreational or scenic areas and which is not a (1) city street or highway or (2) county, state or federal highway or (3) public street or highway of a joint highway district, boulevard district, bridge and highway district or similar district formed for the improvement or building of public streets or highways.
  • Any trail used for the above purposes.
  • Any paved trail, walkway, path, or sidewalk on an easement of way which has been granted to a public entity, which easement provides access to any unimproved property, so long as such public entity shall reasonably attempt to provide adequate warnings of the existence of any condition of the paved trail, walkway, path, or sidewalk which constitutes a hazard to health or safety…

The trial court granted the Regents’ motion for summary judgment, finding the Regents were entitled to “trail immunity” under Government Code section 831.4, subdivision (b).  In granting summary judgment, the trial court concluded under the applicable case law, “the only conclusion that’s possible…is that this Great Meadow bike path is a trail.”

Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s ruling, arguing that the Great Meadow Bikeway is not a trail within the meaning of section 831.4, as it does not serve the statutory purpose of keeping a recreational trail open to the public because university records show that the bikeway was designed for its primary use of bicycle commuting; the bikeway produces revenue from student tuition and other sources; and the Regents take responsibility for the bikeway’s safety and would keep the bikeway open without statutory immunity.   Although Plaintiffs acknowledged that some bicyclists use the Great Meadow Bikeway to access recreational lands located near the UCSC campus, they argued that such recreational use was merely a secondary purpose.  Plaintiffs also emphasized Adrian was not engaged in a recreational activity when his accident occurred, but rather was commuting home from campus.

The Regents argued the Great Meadow Bikeway is a trail within the meaning of section 831.4 because that section has been interpreted to apply to bike paths; the Great Meadow Bikeway is itself scenic; and Plaintiffs did not dispute the Great Meadow Bikeway is used by bicyclists for recreational purposes, including accessing the mountain trails located near the UCSC campus.  The Regents also contended the Great Meadow Bikeway must be treated as a trail under section 831.4 in order to serve the statute’s purpose of encouraging public entities to open their property for public recreational use without fear of exposure to liability.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling, holding the Regents have trail immunity from claims arising from Adrian’s tragic accident on the Great Meadow Bikeway pursuant to Government Code section 831.4.  The Court of Appeal reasoned because the Great Meadow Bikeway has mixed uses that undisputedly include recreation, the Regents have trail immunity under section 831.4, subdivision (b), from claims that arise from the condition of the bikeway.

In reaching its decision, the Burgueno court relied on several California decisions that have considered application of Government Code section 831.4 in the context of bicycle accidents on a public trail or path.  One such case – Armenio v. County of San Mateo (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 413 – held that trail immunity under section 831.4 applies to paved trails on which recreational activity takes place, as well as trails that provide access to recreational activities.  Based on its interpretation of Armenio and other controlling case law, the Burgueno court concluded it is “well established that section 831.4 applies ‘to bike paths, both paved and unpaved, to trails providing access to recreational activities, and to trails on which the activities take place.’”  The Court of Appeal’s holding in Burgueno further solidifies government entities’ broad immunity under the Government Code for injuries sustained on recreational trails and unpaved access roads to scenic/recreational areas.  Such immunity allows the government to provide areas of recreation to the public without the fear of being held liable for injuries arising from a “dangerous condition” on the property.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Morgan Van Buren is an associate at Tyson & Mendes LLP. He specializes in personal injury and high net worth insurance issues. Contact Morgan at 858.263.4107 or mvanburen@tysonmendes.com.

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