Recent Decisions on Statutory Immunities Under the California Tort Claims Act

Kaylen Kadotani
May 14, 2018

The California Tort Claims Act (“Act”), California Government Code §§ 810, et seq., sets forth the basic principles of public entity tort liability.  Common tort claims against public entities relate to alleged injuries that occur on public property, such as a trip-and-fall on a public sidewalk alleged to be in a dangerous condition. Under the Act, statutory immunities are available to immunize public entities from so-called “dangerous condition liability.”

The California Court of Appeal recently issued two decisions upholding the application of two such immunities – trail and design immunity – in the context of a dangerous condition action:  Arvizu v. City of Pasadena (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 760 and Rodriguez v. Dept. of Transportation (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 947.

Arvizu v. City of Pasadena

In Arvizu v. City of Pasadena (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 760, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant, City of Pasadena (“City”) based on trail immunity.

In that case, Plaintiff Mr. Arvizu, along with a group of friends, went “ghost hunting” in a City-owned park after the park was closed to the public.  The group, looking for a shortcut, decided to descend down a natural slope to reach a trail that would eventually lead to a bridge apparently notorious for local ghost stories. While descending the slope, Mr. Arvizu lost his footing and tumbled head over heels down the slope.  His momentum carried him to – and past – the intended trail, which, unbeknownst to Mr. Arvizu, was adjacent to the edge of a 10-foot-high concrete retaining wall.  There was no guardrail.  Mr. Arvizu traveled over the wall, hit a tree limb, and then came to rest on the dirt and rocks below, sustaining personal injuries.

Mr. Arvizu sued the City for dangerous condition of public property pursuant to Gov. Code § 835.*  The City moved for summary judgment on the grounds of “trail immunity.”  Gov. Code § 831.4 provides that a public entity “is not liable for an injury caused by a condition of: (a) Any unpaved road which provides access to . . . hiking [and] (b) Any trail used for the above purposes.”  The trial court found that the immunity applied and granted the City’s motion.

Mr. Arvizu appealed the order and argued that trail immunity did not apply because (1) he was not using the trail when he fell, and (2) he was not injured by the trail itself or any condition of the trail, but instead by the lack of guardrails or warnings along the 10-foot retaining wall.  In other words, Mr. Arvizu sought to avoid the entire application of trail immunity by arguing that the “dangerous condition” for purposes of Section 835 was the 10-foot retaining wall and that the trail had nothing to do with the incident.

The Court of Appeal rejected Mr. Arvizu’s arguments and affirmed the trial court’s findings.  First, the Court rejected the notion that Mr. Arvizu was not using the trail by pointing out that the incident occurred while Mr. Arvizu descended a slope while trying to access the trail. The Court also noted that Mr. Arvizu was on the trail himself – albeit, very briefly – as he tumbled down the slope and then over the retaining wall.  He would not have been injured without crossing over the trail.  Second, the Court affirmed an earlier decision holding that trail immunity extends to claims arising from design of the trail, including the lack of guardrails. (See, Amberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1074, 1084-85.) The Court further reasoned that although there are likely many parts of public recreational trails that would become safer with the addition of guardrails or handrails, the associated burden and expense to do so is not feasible and would otherwise undermine the entire purpose of keeping these areas open to the public.  Therefore, the legislative intent to encourage public access to recreational areas supported the application of trail immunity.

For these reasons, the Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in the City’s favor based on trail immunity. This case demonstrates the overall breadth and strength of this immunity defense, especially based on the legislative intent of keeping public recreational areas open to the public.

Rodriguez v. Department of Transportation

In another recent case, Rodriguez v. Dept. of Transportation (“Caltrans”), the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Caltrans based on an immunized design of a state highway.

Plaintiff, Mr. Rodriguez, sued Caltrans after the truck he was a passenger in drove off the road resulting in serious injuries. Mr. Rodriguez asserted that the highway was a dangerous condition of public property because the shoulder of the highway did not contain a warning feature, such as a “rumble strip,” to alert a driver who has inadvertently veered off the road.

Caltrans moved for summary judgment on the grounds of design immunity, pursuant to Gov. Code § 830.6.  The design immunity defense consists of three elements that the entity must prove: (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. (Citing Hampton v. County of San Diego (2015) 62 Cal.4th 340, 342.)  Notably, the design immunity defense still applies and controls even if a dangerous condition is found to exist.

In support of its motion, Caltrans submitted evidence of prior design plans and declarations from the state engineers who exercised their discretionary authority to approve the designs, which did not include a rumble strip on the shoulder.  Caltrans’ expert witness opined that the absence of rumble strips in the prior plans was reasonable because there was no documented need for them, such as a history of accidents or vehicles running off the road in that area. Even the later design plans were not required to have the rumble strips because the traffic safety branch did not recommend their installation.

In opposing the motion, plaintiff did not contest the first and third elements, and instead focused his argument on whether there was discretionary approval of the design.  Specifically, plaintiff argued that Caltrans could not establish discretionary approval because the engineer who approved the initial plans stated in his declaration that he did not even consider placing rumble strips on the shoulder.  In other words, because there was not even a decision made concerning rumble strips, the quality of the deliberative process could not be assessed.

The trial court disagreed with plaintiff’s argument and granted Caltrans’ motion.  Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the discretionary approval element of the design immunity defense simply refers to approval in advance of construction by an officer exercising discretionary authority.  The element is established by a showing that the proper procedures were followed.  The reasonableness of the plan itself is not analyzed under the second element; that is the under the third element, which plaintiff conceded in his opposition to the motion.  Evidence that the Caltrans’ engineer did not consider a certain design element is not relevant for the discretionary approval inquiry. Thus, Caltrans prevailed on its motion.

The design immunity defense provides an important safeguard to public entities that is not otherwise available to private defendants. Indeed, the Court’s ruling continues to support the notion that an entity’s deliberative process and decision-making should not be subject to second guessing by the judge or jury, so long as the entity can prove that it exercised proper discretionary approval in advance of construction and acted reasonably in its design and/or approval of the design. This case also underscores the importance of adequate recordkeeping for public improvement projects, as Caltrans would likely not have prevailed on its motion without producing evidence of its prior plans and supporting documents, which helped establish the requisite discretionary approval.

*  Pursuant to California Government Code § 835:

Except as provided by statute, a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either:

(a) A negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or

(b) The public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition under Section 835.2 a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.

As applicable to this section, the term “dangerous condition” refers to a “condition of property that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial or insignificant) risk of injury when such property or adjacent property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.”  (Gov. Code § 830(a).)