In a recent legal case, Summerfield v. City of Inglewood, Summerfield v. City of Inglewood, No. B324117, 2 (Cal. Ct. App. Oct. 25, 2023), the court examined whether the City could be held liable for the murder of a park visitor in a parking lot. The court's ruling has significant implications for public entities and their responsibility to protect visitors from potential harm. This article will delve into the details of the case, discussing why it is important to understand the criteria for establishing a dangerous condition on public property. By examining the court's reasoning and analysis, we can gain valuable insights into the duty of care owed by public entities and the limits of their liability in such cases.
This case arose from an incident that occurred on August 18, 2021. On that day Andrew, now deceased, drove to Darby Park which is located in the City of Inglewood. He planned to play basketball, but before he exited his vehicle he was shot and killed while sitting in his car in the parking lot. Andrew’s parents brought suit against the City for creating a dangerous condition on public property and negligence.
Darby Park is “owned, maintained, supervised, and/or controlled” by the City. During January 2021, it was also ordered to be closed to the public under COVID-19 mandates. The Appellants alleged that an employee of the City illegally opened the Darby Park gym in violation of the COVID-19 protocols, which they claim was a “substantial factor in drawing people to Darby Park.” They also claimed that several shootings had occurred at Darby Park prior to the killing of their son. In addition, the City did not install cameras in the parking lot and did not take additional measures in regard to security. Based on this, the appellants claimed that the City created and allowed a known dangerous condition to exist on its premises and that the City breached its duty of care to the decedent and appellants by failing to provide security cameras, failing to provide adequate precautions and failing to provide adequate warning about the dangerous condition.
The Appellants claim that the City’s negligence along with the unsafe conditions, directly and proximately caused them harm including “special/ economic damages, general/non-economic damages, and loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, affection and guidance of the decedent.”
The City filed a demurrer to the complaint relying upon Code of Civil Procedure section 430.10, subd.(e) and (f). The trial court sustained the demurrer with leave to amend. The trial court stated in its ruling, “Whether the City failed to provide adequate precautions such as control measures and/or security could not form a basis for liability because the City is immune from liability arising from its failure to provide security or supervision at Darby Park parking lot.” Following the general rule that public entities are not liable for failing to protect against a third party crime, it also found that the City’s failure to warn of a potentially dangerous condition was not a valid basis for liability. As for the cameras, the trial court did concede that this could form a basis for liability, but concluded that the decedent’s family had not elaborated sufficiently to explain how the lack of cameras “created a substantial risk of decedent’s shooting such that it constituted a dangerous condition.” The decedent’s family appealed.
Dangerous Condition on Public Property
Appellants asserted that the combination of prior shootings and criminal activity along with the failure to install cameras or provide warning to park-goers gave the City actual or at least implied notice that the violent activity in the park posed a dangerous condition pursuant to the Government Code.
Government Code section 835, subd.(a) states that a public entity such as a City is not liable for “an injury arising out of an act or omission of the public entity except as provided by statute.” Government Code section 835 goes on to detail the conditions under which a public entity may be liable for creating a dangerous condition. “If the plaintiff established that:
- the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury
- the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition
- the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either:
*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
*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.” Section 835.
A dangerous condition is “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.” Section 830 subd.(a) A condition is not dangerous if “the risk created by the condition was of such a minor, trivial, or insignificant nature in view of the surrounding circumstances that no reasonable person would conclude that the condition created a substantial risk of injury when such property…. was used with due care in a manner in which it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used.” Government Code section 830.2.
A party attempting to prove that a dangerous condition existed must provide specific allegations regarding the circumstances that caused the situation to be dangerous. Cerna v. City of Oakland,161 Cal.App.4th 1340 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008). Proof that may go to show specific reasons that a situation is dangerous may include such evidence as physical damage, deterioration, physical characteristics in its design, location, features, or relationship to people using the property that indicate it poses a threat of harm. Bonanno v. Central Contra Costs Transit, 30 Cal. 4th 139 (Cal. 2003).
Although it is possible for a public entity to be liable for a negligent or illegal act of a third party on its property, it must be related in some way to the condition or physical characteristics of the property. “Third party conduct, by itself unrelated to the condition of the property, does not constitute a dangerous condition for which a public entity may be liable. There must be some defect in the physical condition of the property and that defect must have some casual relationship to the third party conduct that injures the plaintiff.” Zelig v. County of Los Angeles, 27 Cal.4th 1112 (Cal. Ct. App. 2002). “Public liability lies under section 835 only when a feature of the public property has increased or intensified the danger to users from third party conduct.” Bonanno at 155.
Did the Park in Question Pose a Dangerous Condition?
Appellants argued that three specific circumstances proved that the park constituted a dangerous condition.
- City failed to take adequate precautions such as control measures and/or security
- City failed to install security cameras in the parking lot, and
- City failed to provide adequate warning of the dangerous condition.
Failure to Provide Adequate Precautions
The court first addressed the premise that the lack of a security guard is not a physical characteristic of the property and therefore, does not constitute a fact impacting whether or not a particular location posed a dangerous condition. “A lack of human supervision and protection is not a deficiency in the physical characteristics of public property.” Cerna, supra, 161 Cal.App.4th at 1352. Public entities, such as the City of Inglewood in this case, are generally immune from liability for failure to provide security guards.
As to appellants argument that the City failed to provide adequate precautions to prevent city employees from opening the gym when it was supposed to be closed to the public during COVID, the court reasoned that opening the gym to the public, by itself, does not show a concrete link to endangering the public, or show that the property itself was a danger to those who used it. Thus, the appellants failed to articulate a claim for inadequate precautions to establish a dangerous condition claim.
Failure to Provide Surveillance Cameras
The appellants asserted that the lack of security cameras in the parking lot established a dangerous condition. They based this claim on the allegation that the City had actual or constructive notice of ongoing criminal activity and shootings in the park. They argued that they should have installed cameras as a crime deterrent. The court again found that this evidence alone was not enough to prove their point.
First, the court noted that the appellants referred to two shootings, one of which occurred over twenty-three years prior to this case. It found that the showing of two shootings in the twenty-three year span referenced by Appellants hardly qualifies as ongoing criminal activity. In addition, the shootings pointed out in the complaint did not occur in the parking lot as happened here. “As a demurrer tests the adequacy of facts pleaded, these differences in the locations of the crimes alleged… do not assist appellants in sufficiently pleading ongoing criminal activity.” Erfurt v. State of California (1983) 141 Cal.App.3d 837, 844-45.
The court looked at two main questions in determining whether a dangerous condition exists for which a public entity should be liable. “Was the defect complained of described as physical condition, and did the alleged dangerous condition have a casual relationship to the third party conduct that actually injured the plaintiff.” City of San Diego v. Superior Court (2006) 137 Cal. App.
Courts have found that a government or public entity does not have a duty to remedy a condition that is not inherently dangerous. For example, it found that the City did not have a duty to provide lighting on public beaches because dark beaches are not inherently dangerous. City of San Diego v. Superior Court, supra, 137 Cal.App.4th at 29.
In the case at hand, the court disagreed with the Appellants that because the parking lot may not be safe, the City had a duty to install surveillance cameras. The court stated, “Appellants may not presuppose the dangerousness of Darby Park’s parking lot and then fault the City for not installing surveillance cameras to deter said criminal conduct.” The court determined that the Appellants did not allege with adequate particularity that the lack of surveillance cameras in the parking lot of Darby Park “facilitated a third party’s shooting of the decedent”, or that it created a defective or dangerous condition. Further, it found that a reasonable person would not conclude that a lack of cameras created a substantial risk of injury in that parking lot. It concluded that the casual connection between the condition of the property and the shooting was not established.
Failure to Provide Adequate Warning
The Appellants final argument is that the City created a dangerous condition by failing to warn patrons of the park about the alleged dangerous condition. Given the fact that the court found that an actual dangerous condition was not proved by the evidence brought by Appellants this argument failed as well and did not require expanded consideration by the court. Additionally, established case law has held that a public entity does not have a duty to warn against potential criminal conduct. Hayes v. State of California, 11 Cal.3d 469 (Cal. 1974).
The trial court ruled properly. The City, as a public entity, is generally not liable for an act or omission, unless provided specifically by statute. Government Code 835, subd.(a). It will only be liable pursuant to a statute giving them a specific duty of care, otherwise the general rule of immunity will apply. Here the Appellants failed to plead with any specificity any statute that created a duty on the part of the City. They also failed to detail additional criminal activity besides the incident in question here to show that the City had notice of a dangerous condition and therefore, a duty to warn. Their allegations were at best vague. The court affirmed the dismissal by the lower court and underlying order sustaining the demurrer.