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

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 Court of Appeal found that the City’s evidence showed only that it 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.

This decision is important because it requires public entities defending themselves from dangerous condition claims to present sufficient evidence that no other accidents occurred at the location in question. Simply showing that no previous claims have been filed will not be sufficient.

In Lane v. City of Sacramento, the City 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 reversing the trial court’s order granting summary judgment on behalf of the City, the Court of Appeal 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. The Court did not specify what other items may be used, but the lack of police reports in addition to the lack of claims may be helpful. This issue will have to be further 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.

For more information on Lane v. City of Sacramento or other dangerous condition of public property matters, please contact Kim Colwell or Matthew Lavrinets at 800.464.3559.