Daily Development for Wednesday, May 7, 1003
by: Patrick A. Randolph, Jr.
Elmer F. Pierson Professor of Law
UMKC School of Law
Of Counsel: Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin
Kansas City, Missouri
LANDOWNER LIABILITY; LIABILITY FOR THIRD PARTY
TORTS; DANGEROUS LOCATION OF PUBLIC FACILITIES;
TRANSIT STOPS: : Location of bus stop may constitute a dangerous
condition for which the public transit agency will be liable if injury
Bonanno v. Central Contra Costa Transit Auth., 30 Cal. 4th 139
The California Supreme Court has ruled that a transit agency may be
liable for injuries sustained by a bus patron while crossing a busy street
on a crosswalk with no stop light to get to a bus stop.
The Central Contra Costa Transit Authority operates buses on public
streets in Contra Costa County. One of the bus stops was in a location
that required many bus passengers to cross a busy street during the
morning commute. After complaints several years ago, the County had
painted a crosswalk at the intersection nearest the crosswalk. Later, a
traffic light was installed at an intersection a little bit farther away, but
the Transit Authority did not move the bus stop.
As plaintiff was crossing the street in the crosswalk, a car whose driver
was having difficulty seeing through his windshield rear-ended another
car that had stopped for the crosswalk. She sued the Transit Authority,
the County, the driver of the car that rear-ended, and the hospital that
treated her for her injuries. The Transit Authority was liable for $1.6
million in economic damages and $15,000 in non-economic damages -
despite the fact that the jury had allocated only 1% responsibility to it. .
By statute, a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous
condition, if it had notice of the condition a sufficient time before the
injury to take protective measures. Cal. Gov't Code 835. A dangerous
condition is a condition that creates a substantial risk of injury when that
property or adjacent property is used with due care in a reasonably
foreseeable manner. Here, the dangerous condition was the location of
the property. Public entities are liable when their facilities are located in
physical situations that unnecessarily "increase or intensify" the danger
to those who use the facilities in a reasonably foreseeable manner.
The court emphasized that here the transit authority had a choice to
provide transit services in the area by locating its bus stop closer to the
traffic light that had recently been installed nearby. It stated that the fact
that other agency approvals might have been required to accomplish such
a move was of no consequence if the Authority made no effort to obtain
such approvals when it had notice of the dangerous condition presented
by the existing stop and the available alternative.
Justices Baxter and Brown dissented. In their view, a property owner
should not be liable for injuries caused by crossing an adjacent public
street if the property owner does not control the street or the vehicles on
Comment 1: Although the case is based upon statutory liability,
obviously there is a potential spillover to commercial landowners who
identify entry and access points to their property and, due to traffic
conditions on neighboring streets, these locations prove to be less than
optimal. Note that there is still a requirement to show proximate cause,
and there virtually always will be an apportionment of liability. In this
case, however, a California jury still was able to stick a significant bill in
the pocket of the landowner Transit Authority.
Comment 2: It was not lost on the court that this decision potentially
opens public agencies up to suit for injuries caused by criminal attacks
upon parties making use of public facilities located in known high crime
areas. Defendants argued that public agencies will be forced to the
decision not to provide public facilities at all in such areas - a decision
that is contrary to public policy. Not so - responded the court. All the
agency has to show in its defense is that its choice of location is
reasonable given other alternatives. To which the editor responds -
"Yeah, right." And the reasonableness of the decision will be made by a
jury similar to the one awarding over a million dollars in damages for 1%
liability in this case? After an injury has occurred? That will certainly
provide great comfort to agencies and lead them to be proactive in
providing public facilities in high crime areas - NOT!
Readers are encouraged to respond to or criticize this posting.
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