You’ve just been involved in a traffic collision with another car, but it wouldn’t have happened if a tree branch wasn’t obscuring your view of a stop sign. You’ve just been assaulted and robbed in a city parking garage at night, but it would not have occurred if access to the garage was restricted and there was adequate lighting. These scenarios involve a dangerous condition of public property and you may pursue an action against the appropriate government entity. However, to prevail on such a claim requires navigation through various statutory defenses and governmental immunities; an understanding of the applicable statutes and relevant case law is essential for success.
The legislature, in the California Government Code section 830, defines a dangerous condition of public property as “a condition of property that creates a substantial 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.”
The defense will often assert that a dangerous condition does not exist when third-party negligence contributes to the cause of the accident. However, the concurrent negligence of either the plaintiff, or a third person, does not break the chain of causation to relieve the public entity from liability if the dangerous condition was a “proximate cause” of plaintiff’s personal injury. Baldwin v. State (1972) 6 Cal.3d 424 (combination of dangerous intersection and negligent operation of motor vehicle by third party). In short, a third party’s negligence does not negate the existence of a “dangerous condition.” Swaner v. City of Santa Monica (1984) 150 Cal.App.3d 789.
Public Responsibility to Prevent Personal Injury
California Government Code section 830.4 provides a qualification to the definition of a dangerous condition. This section provides immunity for a public entity’s “mere” failure to provide regulatory traffic control signals, stop signs, right-of-way signs, speed restriction signs or distinctive roadway markings as described in the Vehicle Code. However, when a public entity undertakes to install traffic signs and signals, it essentially invites public reliance on them and may be liable for creating a dangerous condition if the signs and signals fail to function as intended. Teall v. City of Cudany (1963) 60 Cal.2d 431.
Finally, under Government Code section 830 a dangerous condition on “adjacent property” includes the risk created by the condition of public property that may extend beyond its boundaries; constituting a hazard to persons or property nearby. Milligan v. City of Laguna Beach (1983) 34 Cal.3d 829 (trees on city property fell onto a residence on adjacent property causing damage).
If you are pursuing a claim against a public entity for a personal injury caused by the dangerous condition of public property, you will undoubtedly face one or more of these nuances in the law. Defeating dispositive motions from the defense and prevailing in such an action will depend upon your knowledge of governmental immunities and the case law interpreting them.