Immunity Statute Blocks Southern California Man’s Lawsuit Against County Over Dangerous Intersection

An important new California Supreme Court ruling highlights exactly how broad the application of the state’s governmental design immunity statute is. The high court ruled against a man injured in an auto accident at an intersection that he alleged was dangerous, since the court concluded that the man’s case against San Diego County was barred by the statute. Even if the engineer who approved the design had no knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition on the road, that lack of knowledge still did not prevent the county from asserting the immunity law.

The accident leading to the lawsuit occurred at the intersection of two rural roads in San Diego County. Randall Hampton was attempting to turn left from a side road onto a two-lane roadway. He executed the turn and was struck by Robert Cullen. The California Highway Patrol accident report stated that Hampton improperly pulled out in front of Cullen.

Nevertheless, Hampton and his wife sued Cullen for negligence. As part of this case, the Hamptons also sued San Diego County, accusing the government of failing to maintain the intersection in a safe manner. Specifically, the Hamptons claimed that the intersection as it existed on the day of the accident afforded left-turning drivers (like Hampton) an inadequate line of sight to execute their turns. A high embankment with vegetation growing on it allegedly impaired left-turning drivers’ visibility.

The county asked the trial court to award summary judgment in its favor. It claimed that it was immune from liability under Cal. Govt. Code Section 830.6. That section creates what’s known as design immunity for public entities. Under this statute, a public entity cannot be held liable for a dangerous condition on public property if it proves that the property’s design or plan caused the accident, the approval of that plan or design was discretionary on the part of the entity, and the plan or design was reasonable. The Hamptons, however, argued that design immunity did not apply because the intersection as it existed did not match the design. Specifically, the intersection’s design drawings did not “describe or depict the embankment or take it into account as an impediment to visibility.” The Hamptons contended that no engineer for the county approved the intersection with the view-blocking embankment, so no actual discretionary design approval (as required by the statute) ever took place.

Despite this issue with the design drawing, the trial court granted summary judgment to the county. The California Court of Appeal upheld that decision, and so did the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court clarified that the design immunity statute’s purpose was to “avoid the dangers involved in permitting reexamination and second-guessing of governmental design decisions in the context of a trial.” Adopting the interpretation of the statute that the Hamptons put forward would necessarily result in “just the sort of second-guessing concerning the wisdom of the design” that the statute meant to avoid.

This case very clearly highlights that California law creates a very high hurdle against holding a public entity liable for potentially dangerous conditions on public property, especially when it comes to proving that the governmental entity has not done the proper sort of discretionary decision-making required to trigger immunity under the design immunity statute. This is not to discourage accident victims from pursuing their cases for compensation for their injuries, but simply to provide a clearer understanding of how the law and courts will view their cases.

For thoughtful advice about your auto accident case, reach out to the Oakland car accident attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our injury attorneys have helped many people hurt in auto accidents and are ready to assist you. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule a confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Introducing Settlement Agreements in California Auto Accident Cases, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Sept. 30, 2015

California Court Says Passenger May Be Liable to Victims for Her Exhortations to Driver in Fatal Crash, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Sept. 30, 2015

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