A recent auto accident involving superstar golfer Tiger Woods occurred in the City of Ranchos Palos Verdes, an upscale community adjacent to the Pacific Ocean in greater Los Angeles. A 2016 accident in the same area gives rise to a recent decision of California’s Second District Court of Appeal which limits the scope of design immunity afforded to public entities.i
Tragic Accident Results In Litigation
In March 2016, Jonathan Tansavatdi was riding his bicycle southbound on busy Hawthorne Boulevard in the City of Rancho Palos Verdes. Jonathan intended to proceed through the street’s intersection with Vallon Drive. At the intersection, a semi-trailer turned right and collided with Jonathan who was killed. Although some portions of Hawthorne had dedicated bike lanes, the approach to the Vallon Drive intersection did not. At trial, one of the City’s engineers testified a bike lane was not installed in the accident area in order to preserve on-street parking for a nearby public park. In 2017, Jonathan’s mother, Betty Tansavatdi, filed suit against the City. She asserted the intersection constituted a dangerous condition of public property under California law. She alleged the City maintained a dangerous condition by failing to provide a dedicated bike lane in the area where the accident occurred. She also alleged the City failed to warn the public of the dangerous condition.
California Government Code section 835 provides a public entity may be liable under certain circumstances for injuries caused by a dangerous condition of its property. However, under Government Code section 830.6, the public entity may escape such liability by raising the affirmative defense of ‘design immunity.’ii Government Code section 830.6 provides both a public entity and its employees are not liable for an injury caused by the plan or design of a construction of, or an improvement to, public property where the plan or design was approved by a legislative body or an employee exercising discretionary authority to give the project approval.
A public entity raising this defense must establish three elements: (1) a causal relationship between a plan or design and the accident; (2) discretionary approval of the plan or design prior to construction; and (3) substantial evidence supporting the reasonableness of the plan or design.iii The first two elements, causation and discretionary approval, involve factual questions to be resolved by a jury unless the facts are undisputed.iv The third element, the existence of substantial evidence supporting the reasonableness of the plan or design, is a legal matter for the court to decide.v
Trial Court Ruling
Following discovery, the City filed a motion for summary judgment arguing there was a reasonable basis for the absence of a bike lane in the area of the accident. The City cited accident statistics which indicated the only serious accident that occurred at the intersection for over 10 years was the one involving Jonathan. The City asserted the accident was not related to the intersection’s design and the design was approved by qualified engineers, in addition to being approved for the use of Federal Government construction funds. The City also asserted that substantial evidence related to the absence of prior accidents supported a conclusion the design was reasonable. The trial court agreed with the City, and concluded it established a right to design immunity for the accident as a matter of law. The court did not address Betty Tansavadti’s allegation the City failed to warn of the dangerous condition. Ms. Tansavadti appealed.
Court of Appeal’s Analysis
- 1. Design Immunity
After examining trial court records, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s conclusion design immunity applied to the City’s potential liability for the absence of a bike lane at the intersection where the accident occurred. The Court determined Betty Transavatdi failed to show the absence of bike lane road markings in the area of the accident was inadvertent, concluding it was an intentional component of the road’s design. The Court also found the City carried its burden of proof regarding reliance on discretionary approval. A private engineering firm prepared the plans and they were approved by the City. The Court concluded the City also satisfied the third element of Government Code section 830.6 because the opinions of two qualified engineers constituted substantial evidence the plans were reasonable as implemented and were in full compliance with applicable standards of care.
- 2. Failure to Warn
This decision is notable because the Court of Appeal held the City was required to take reasonable steps to warn about what amounted to a dangerous condition, and it failed to do so. In reaching its holding, the Court applied a 1972 decision of the California Supreme Court. Cameron v. State of Californiavi involved injuries suffered when a motorist could not negotiate an “S” curve constructed with inconsistent superelevation. Superelevation is the slope or bank designed into a curve to help cars maintain contact with the road surface. In Cameron, the Supreme Court held a public entity may be held liable for failure to warn of a concealed dangerous condition even if the dangerous condition was covered by design immunity. In Cameron, the Supreme Court reversed a grant of nonsuit, concluding design immunity was inapplicable because the state failed to prove the inconsistent superelevation was part of a pre-approved design for the road. The Supreme Court found:
[W] here the state is immune from liability for injuries caused by a dangerous condition of its property because the dangerous condition was created as a result of a plan or design which conferred immunity under section 830.6, the state may nevertheless be liable for failure to warn of this dangerous condition where the failure to warn is negligent and is an independent, separate, concurring cause of the accident.vii
Applying Cameron, the Second District Court of Appeal concluded the City of Rancho Palos Verdes was entitled to design immunity, for failing to provide a bike lane does not necessarily also preclude liability for failing to warn the public. It reversed the grant of summary judgement and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings related to Betty Tansavadti’s allegation of failure to warn.
Strong protection is afforded to public entities in California for injury liability arising from alleged design deficiencies. Indeed, even in the Tansavadti case, the Court of Appeal found the City of Rancho Palos Verdes met its burden of proof and established a valid defense of liability for the death of Johnathan Tansavadti arising out of alleged design deficiencies. Independent of the duty to safely design public spaces, however, is a duty under the law for public entities to warn of dangerous conditions, particularly when the condition is not easily perceived. A public entity must not only follow appropriate procedures when designing works or improvement, it must take reasonable steps to warn of dangerous conditions which result from those improvements.
i Betty Tansavatdi v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes (2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 423.
ii Cornette v. Department of Transportation (2001) 26 Cal.4th 63, 69.
iii Id. At 69.
iv Alvis v. County of Ventura (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 536, 550.
v Cornette v. Department of Transportation (2001) 26 Cal.4th 63, 66.
vi Cameron v. State of California (1972) 7 Cal.3d 318, 327.
vii Id. At 329, 102 Cal.Rptr. 305, 497 P.2d 777.