Can a public entity rely upon design immunity where the public entity failed to warn of a design element that resulted in a dangerous condition of a roadway? In Tansavatdi v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes (S267453) 60 Cal. App. 5th 423, the California Supreme Court examined whether the design immunity found in California Government Code section 830.6 extends to claims alleging that the public entity failed to warn of a design element that resulted in a dangerous condition and held that public entities still "retain a duty to warn of known dangers that the roadway presents to the public."
The California Government Claims Act (Gov. Code §§ 810, et seq.) provides that a government entity may be liable for creating a dangerous condition on its property or failing to protect against the dangerous condition when it had an opportunity to do so. However, the Government Code also provides for design immunity in situations where the alleged injuries or damages were caused by a design defect—that is, where the alleged dangerous condition was created as a result of a plan or design approved by authorized personnel and the substantial evidence supported the reasonableness of the plan. "To obtain design immunity, a public entity must establish that the challenged design was discretionarily approved by authorized personnel and that substantial evidence supported the reasonableness of the plan." Cornette v. Dept. of Transportation (2001) 26 Cal.4th 63, 66.
Here the City established that the plan was approved by authorized personnel and deemed reasonable. The issue, however, developed into much more and turned on whether there was still a duty to warn. Namely, the California Supreme Court examined the circumstances of whether the statutory immunity also extends to claims alleging that a public entity failed to warn of a design element that resulted in a dangerous roadway condition. Relying heavily on the holding in Cameron v. State of California (1972) 7 Cal.3d 318 (Cameron), the court concluded that design immunity does not necessarily preclude failure to warn claims. As the Court held in Cameron, “Where the state is immune from liability for injuries caused by a dangerous condition of its property because the dangerous condition was created as a result of a plan or design which conferred immunity under Government Code section 830.6, the state may nevertheless be liable for failure to warn of this dangerous condition.” Id. at p. 329.
Factual Background of the Case
On March 18, 2016, Johnathan Tansavatdi was riding his bicycle on Hawthorne Boulevard in Rancho Palos Verdes. Hawthorne Boulevard has a bike lane, but it stops at Dupre Drive and begins again after Vallon Drive. The City made the decision not to have a bike lane in this particular area to make room for street parking. In this incident, as Tansavatdi was approaching the intersection of Hawthorne and Vallon he was in a collision with an 80 foot tractor trailer. He died as a result. His mother sued the City of Rancho Palos Verde claiming that the intersection presented a dangerous condition on public property and that the City had created the dangerous condition. In addition, she claimed that the City failed to warn of the dangerous condition.
The City filed a motion for summary judgment based on design immunity under Government Code section 830.6. Specifically, it argued that the alleged cause of the accident (the lack of a bike lane in this area) was previously approved and authorized by certified personnel. Qualified professionals examined the area upon its conception and reasoned that parking spots in that area were more important than continuing the bike lane. The City also contended that because it had met the requirements to be shielded by design immunity, the court need not reach the plaintiff's other contention involving failure to warn.
The trial court granted the City's motion for summary judgment finding that the City was shielded by design immunity under Government Code section 830.6. It stated that, "a discretionary decision was made that street parking near the community park on Hawthorne Boulevard east of Dupre Drive had a higher priority than a bicycle lane near that particular stretch of Hawthorne Boulevard" and that "the plan and design were reasonable." Therefore, the trial court did not address the plaintiff's claim regarding the failure to warn.
The plaintiff appealed, arguing that because the trial court did not address the failure to warn claim, the summary judgment ruling should be reversed. The court of appeal agreed and remanded for further proceedings. The City then filed a petition for review to the California Supreme Court.
Design Immunity and the Government Claims Act
Section 835 of the Government Claims Act provides the instances under which a government entity may be liable for a dangerous condition on public property. A plaintiff pursuing liability under this Code section must show:
- 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 either
- The public employee negligently or wrongfully created the dangerous condition, or
- The public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition." Ducey v. Argo Sales Co. (1975) 25 Cal.3d 707, 716.
The Government Code also outlines several statutory exceptions that limit liability for dangerous condition claims. One such exception is design immunity. This "precludes liability for any injury caused by the plan or design of…. or an improvement to public property." Gov. Code §830.6. To establish design immunity a public entity must satisfy three elements:
- A causal relationship between the plan or design and the accident.
- Discretionary approval of the plan or design prior to construction, and
- Substantial evidence supporting the reasonableness of the plan or design. Cornette, supra, 26 Cal.4th at p. 69.
A second type of immunity provided by Government Code section 830.8 protects public entities from liability for an injury caused by the failure to provide traffic or warning signals, signs, markings, or devices. However, this section also includes an exception. If a signal, sign, or other marker was necessary "to warn of a dangerous condition which endangered the safe movement of traffic and which would not be reasonably apparent to, and would not have been anticipated by, a person exercising due care," the public entity may be liable for not providing a warning in that situation. This limitation to a public entity's immunity is called the "concealed trap" exception. Chowdhury v. City of Los Angeles (1995) 38 Cal.App.4th 1187, 1196-1197.
In other words, in order to succeed on a claim that the public entity failed to warn, a plaintiff must establish that the condition was essentially a "concealed trap." Finally, in order to win on a failure to warn cause of action, a plaintiff must prove that the failure to warn of "a dangerous traffic condition otherwise subject to design immunity, was an independent, separate, concurring cause of the accident." Cameron at 329. The failure to warn must have been a "substantial factor" in causing the injury. State Dept. of Hospitals v. Superior Court (2015) 61 Cal.4th 339. 352, fn.12.
Here the City argues that section 830.6 protects them from liability because the design did not include a recommendation for a warning or extra signage at the intersection of this accident. The City also, however, did not provide evidence that placing a warning there was considered in the design and discussion of this particular roadway. Under Cameron, a plaintiff may bring a claim for failure to warn of a dangerous traffic condition that is subject to design immunity if they also prove the following:
- The public entity had actual or constructive notice that the approved design resulted in a dangerous condition.
- The dangerous condition qualified as a concealed trap, and
- The absence of a warning was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury.
Courts Are Bound by the Precedent in Cameron
Although the City argued that Cameron was not binding precedent in this case, the California Supreme Court disagreed. Instead, it held that although the trial court was correct in its ruling that the City was properly entitled to use the design immunity defense, the City could also be held liable for failing to warn of dangerous condition. Therefore, the court reversed in part and remanded on the failure to warn issue.
This case is significant as it carves out a potential loophole to the design immunity defense in cases were serious injuries result from a public entity's failure to warn about dangerous roadway conditions.