Court of Appeal Decision Adversely Affects Public Entity Liability for Dangerous Conditions

April 19, 2010, by Meyers Nave

In an opinion published on April 16, 2010 the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District held that in cases in which a plaintiff has alleged that a dangerous condition of public property caused injury, the public entity defendant cannot rely on the absence of prior accident claims to prove that the public property did not pose a substantial risk of injury to the plaintiff. In the case, Lane v. City of Sacramento, C060744, the City of Sacramento brought a summary judgment motion on the plaintiff's claim that the dangerous condition of the City's roadway caused an automobile accident. The City argued that it could not be liable because in the absence of prior accidents, there was no basis to find that the roadway posed a substantial risk of injury. In support of the argument, the City relied on evidence that no previous claims had been filed against the City for injuries at the subject location.

In reversing the trial court's order granting summary judgment on behalf of the City, the Court of Appeal found that the City's evidence showed only that the City had found no evidence of prior claims against the City in connection with accidents at the location in question, rather than showing that no other accidents had actually occurred there . The Court also stated that a lack of prior accidents, even if properly proven, would not be enough by itself to bar Plaintiff's claim at the summary judgment stage, although it would be relevant supporting evidence.

This decision is important because it requires public entities defending themselves from dangerous condition claims present sufficient evidence that no other accidents occurred at the location in question . Simply showing that no previous claims ha ve been filed will not be sufficient. The Court of Appeal did not specify what would be an adequate way of proving a lack of accidents. It seems, though, that a lack of police reports would be one helpful, further step beyond a lack of claims. The issue will have to be developed in future cases. The opinion, available here, also contains important discussions regarding the relevance of a plaintiff's exercise of due care, and the causation element of a dangerous condition claim.

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