California Supreme Court Reopens Liability Case Against City of LA
City will mount new defense against liability for fatal car accident allegedly involving a dangerous road condition.
In a recent ruling, California Supreme Court justices unanimously determined that two lower courts had misinterpreted an important statute relevant to public entities’ liability for accidents related to dangerous conditions on public property.
The statute in question, Government Code 835, waives sovereign immunity for a city or other public entity under the following conditions:
- the property was in a dangerous condition when the injury occurred
- the injury (not necessarily the accident) was proximately caused by the dangerous condition
- the public entity knew or should have known of the danger and had time to protect against this danger, yet did not do so
As we will see, the Supreme Court’s decision to reopen the case hinged upon the correct interpretation of “proximate cause” within this statute.
Facts of the Case
The case concerned a fatal car accident which took place in 2008 in Eagle Rock. In this accident, three teenage siblings and a family friend were killed and one other passenger injured when Rotislav Shnayder’s vehicle veered into their car, causing it to spin out of control and hit one of the large magnolia trees planted in the median of the road. In their wrongful death suit, the teens’ family held that the city of Los Angeles was partially liable for their loss because the magnolia trees constituted a dangerous condition. The family’s position was that these trees were planted too close to the traffic lanes and this present an unreasonable risk to any drivers who might lose control of their vehicles.
When the case was first tried, the judge agreed with the city’s argument that they should not be held liable for any damages because it was the negligence of the other driver, Rotislav Shnayder, not the presence of the trees, that caused the accident which killed the teens.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment, further stating that the tree could not have constituted a “dangerous condition” because it did not contribute to Shnayder’s negligent driving.
The Supreme Court disagreed with this line of reasoning, because it focused on the cause of the accident, not the cause of the injury. In the court opinion, Justice Leondra Kruger wrote that “[P]laintiffs in this case must show that a dangerous condition of property — that is, a condition that creates a substantial risk of injury to the public — proximately caused the fatal injuries their decedents suffered as a result of the collision with Shnayder’s car. But nothing in the statute requires plaintiffs to show that the allegedly dangerous condition also caused the third party conduct that precipitated the accident.”
A similar example comes from the 1979 case Ducey v Argo Sales Co. In this case, the state of California was held liable for injuries caused when one vehicle crossed a freeway median and hit another car. By not installing a median barrier, the court said, the state had created a dangerous condition that proximately (directly) caused the injuries.
Will The Family Win Their Case?
Just because the Supreme Court rejected the reasoning of the lower courts does not necessarily mean that the family of the deceased teenagers will win their case against the city. The case will be reopened and the arguments will now center not on whether the trees somehow caused or contributed to the accident, but on whether the trees constituted a dangerous condition in and of themselves.