Supreme Court Expands Public Entity Liability On Dangerous Conditions Claims Involving Third-Party Conduct

Can a public entity be liable for dangerous condition of public property if a third party causes plaintiff’s accident and there is no causal connection between the condition of the public entity’s property and the third-party conduct? The Supreme Court says yes. In doing so, it seemingly changed prior law and expanded public entity exposure.

Codova v. City of Los Angeles involved a motor-vehicle accident caused by the negligent driving of Rostislav Shnayder. Shnayder inexplicably veered his vehicle into Cristyn Cordova’s vehicle, causing Cordova’s vehicle to jump the curb and spin out of control before coming into contact with a magnolia tree planted 7 feet from the roadway. The impact of the collision killed Cordova and two of her siblings. Their parents then filed suit against the City alleging dangerous condition of public property.

The trial court granted the City’s Motion for Summary Judgment, finding the undisputed evidence showed the accident was caused by Shnayder’s negligent driving, not any condition of the City’s property. The Supreme Court reversed that ruling, holding the relevant inquiry is whether the condition of the property caused plaintiff’s injuries, not whether it caused the third-party conduct that led to plaintiff’s injuries. The Court based its decision on a strict reading of Government Code ยง 835, which provides that plaintiffs must prove the “property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury” and that “the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition.”

The Court’s ruling overturned a line of Appellate Court decisions holding there can be no liability unless the condition of the property caused, facilitated or encouraged the third-party conduct that led to plaintiff’s injuries. Those Appellate Court decisions were largely based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Zelig v. County of Los Angeles, which involved an incident where a woman was shot and killed by her ex-husband in the Los Angeles County Courthouse. In dismissing the resulting dangerous condition of public property action, the Court wrote: “the defect in the physical condition of the property must have some causal relationship to the third party conduct that actually injures the plaintiff.”

The Court stretched to reconcile its ruling in Cordova with Zelig, explaining that “Zelig’s focus on the causal relationship between the condition of the courthouse and third party conduct simply reflected the nature of the plaintiffs’ allegations” in that case, which were that the condition of the courthouse facilitated the shooter’s efforts to harm his ex-wife. The Court’s statement that there was no evidence of a causal connection between the two was not meant to impose a new rule requiring that plaintiffs prove that a dangerous condition actually caused the third-party’s conduct.

The impact of this ruling is significant as it confirms that public entities may be liable even if the condition of their property does not cause or otherwise trigger the events leading to plaintiffs’ injuries. All is not lost. Plaintiffs still must prove a dangerous condition (i.e., a condition of property that creates a substantial risk of injury when used with due care) existed, and that the condition was a substantial factor in causing the injury. In addition, design immunity still exists if the condition at issue was part of an approved plan