In March, 2018, the California Court of Appeal decided an interesting issue with regarding defective designs on public property in Rodriguez v. Department of Transportation, Case No. F074027 (March 27, 2018). The Court had to decide whether a public entity could avoid liability through the affirmative defense of design immunity. In a nutshell, the Court rejected plaintiff’s assertion that a public official’s approval of a design does not constitute an exercise of discretionary authority under Government Code section 830.6 when there is a failure to consider a safety measure that would have prevented the plaintiff’s injury. In other words, a government entity is not required to consider all safety measures as long as the approved design is found to be reasonable. This rather complicated decision requires further factual analysis to fully understand. Read on.
A Brief Overview of Government Code section 830.6
A public entity claiming design immunity under Government Code section 830.6 must establish three elements: (1) a causal relationship between the 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. In order to establish discretionary approval, an entity must simply provide evidence that an employee who possesses discretionary authority approved the design at issue. A showing the employee considered the safety feature a plaintiff claims would have prevented the harm suffered is not required to take advantage of the safeguards of Government Code section 830.6. As long as the design at issue was reasonable, the omission of the safety feature does not affect the entities immunity from liability for the harm a plaintiff suffered as a result of the condition.
The Rodriguez Case
Plaintiff Erik Rodriguez was a passenger in a pickup truck traveling westbound on State Route 152 near Los Banos, California when the truck ran off the road, injuring Mr. Rodriguez and killing another passenger. Mr. Rodriguez sued the Department of Transportation (Caltrans) claiming they maintained a dangerous condition on public property. Namely, Mr. Rodriguez contended the guardrail present on the subject section of the roadway and the shoulder were inadequate since they did not contain “warning features” such as a “rumble strip” to prevent vehicles from the type of accident he was involved in.
Caltrans made a motion for summary judgment in response to Mr. Rodriguez’s complaint, which argued the state engineers who approved the plans for the roadway did so within their discretionary authority under Government Code section 830.6. They also submitted evidence the subject roadway was built in accordance with the plans. The lead project engineer for the section of SR 152 that was at issue submitted a declaration stating that when the plans were submitted and approved, he did not considering implementing rumble strips on the road’s shoulders because “in 1992, the absence of rumble strips at the subject location met the then existing standards for roadways.”
In his opposition, Mr. Rodriguez contended, because the project engineer failed to consider the rumble strips as a safety measure (rather than considering them and rejecting them), Caltrans was unable to prove they exercised “discretionary authority” in approving the plans as the rumble strips were never contemplated for the subject area of the roadway. The trial court disagreed and granted Caltrans’ summary judgment motion. Mr. Rodriguez appealed.
After a detailed analysis of Government Code section 830.6, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. Despite Mr. Rodriguez’s argument that discretionary approval was lacking due to the fact the engineer “never considered the particular feature or design element at issue, namely whether to install rumble strips[,] . . . [and] if there was never a decision made concerning the rumble strips, the quality of the deliberative process cannot be assessed,” the Court held Caltrans met their burden. The Court found Caltrans produced sufficient evidence that the plans for the subject section of roadway were approved by engineers who possessed the requisite authority to approve the plans. (Rodriguez v. Department of Transportation, Case No. F074027 at p.9). The Court further opined that, based on the language of Government Code 830.6, the fact the engineer never considered the use of the rumble strips was irrelevant to the discretionary approval element and, as long as the adopted final design was one a “reasonable employee” could have approved, immunity against the plaintiff’s claims applied. (Id. p. 11).
The decision in Rodriguez effectively allows governmental entities to rely on norms and practices of design of public property as long as the design is reasonable. Ultimately, it is not for the fact finder to decide whether a public entity’s discretionary authority is correct but, rather, whether there is evidence to support the reasonableness of a design given the circumstances. In essence, the Rodriguez decision shields public entities from liability for failing to implement safety precautions that were never a consideration in the first place, so the law does not require an inevitable guessing game.