IT WAS SMALL WHEN I PLANTED IT
Times change and trees grow. That’s the lesson in today’s case.
Mr. Paredes was driving along I-805 in the driving rain, transporting his daughters in a superannuated Volkswagen with bald tires. He lost control of the VW and it slid down a bank, colliding with a eucalyptus tree located about 25 feet from an on ramp. His 6- and 9-year old daughters died in the accident, and he was badly hurt.
Normally, one would shake his or her head and observe that Mr. Paredes maybe was going too fast, or driving a junker in weather that was too bad, or perhaps engaging in risky conduct by relying on bald tires. But this being America, it had to be someone else’s fault.
Mr. Paredes blamed Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. It was the agency’s fault, because the trees were closer to the on ramp than permitted by Caltrans standards, and in fact shouldn’t have been there at all. Only problem was, when the trees were planted, they complied with all standards. Even today, they were more than 30 feet from the road and 25 feet from the on ramp. In other words, Caltrans may have set in motion the factors that caused the damage, but it didn’t create it negligently: the construction complied with all standards when built.
Under the law, the agency had to have actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. Splitting hairs, the Court found that Caltrans knew that the trees were planted where they were planted: after all, Caltrans had planted them. But, the Court said, Caltrans didn’t have knowledge that the trees, located as they were, were dangerous.
It strikes us as maybe parsing things a little too finely. But as we’ve said before, hard cases make bad law. Here, the jury may have gone off on a frolic, and — notwithstanding all of the expert testimony — figured that Mr. Paredes was a little too much at fault to be entitled to much. The Court of Appeals, which is legally disposed to defend a jury verdict anyway, may have agreed.
Driving 60 mph in a beater of a car with bald tires through heavy rain? So exactly who was negligent here? Some workers who planted a tree 15 years ago or the idiot who jeopardized his most precious possession — two little girls — in his haste to get somewhere?
Paredes v. State, 2008 WL 384636 (Cal.App. Feb. 14, 2008). Marco Paredes was injured and his two daughters killed when Paredes lost control of his vehicle in heavy rain, after which the vehicle slid down an embankment and struck a eucalyptus tree. Paredes claimed that California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) employees created the dangerous condition by creating the slope and planting eucalyptus trees within 30 feet of the on ramp without protecting them with guardrails, demonstrating negligence per se as well as placing Caldrons on notice of the defect.
The jury disagreed. It found that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the accident and was a substantial cause of Paredes’s injury and the death of his children, but it nonetheless concluded that the State did not have actual or constructive notice of the condition in sufficient time before the incident to protect against it. The jury also found the dangerous condition was not caused by a negligent or wrongful act or omission of a State employee acting within the scope of employment.
Held: The verdict against Paredes was upheld. The Court of Appeals observed that California law held that except as provided by statute, a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and either a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.
The law, the Court said, plainly requires a finding that a public entity’s negligent or wrongful acts created a dangerous condition. It does not impose liability for mere creation of a dangerous condition. In this case, the jury was instructed that the plaintiffs had to establish that negligent or wrongful conduct by a State employee acting within the scope of employment created the dangerous condition. The Court concluded that substantial evidence from State’s expert, as well as Paredes’ own experts, supported the jury’s finding that State did not act negligently or wrongfully in planting the accident trees on the slope along the accident site.
The State’s expert explained that the standard applicable at the time of the planting was Caltrans’s “clear zone principle,” which required only that trees be planted 30 feet beyond the traveled way of the I-805 mainline and 20 feet from the on-ramp. For that matter, Paredes’ expert agreed the accident tree was over 31 feet from the edge of the traveled way of the I-805, and 25 feet from the edge of the traveled way of the nearby on-ramp. Another expert explained that a fixed immovable object under the Caltrans clear zone standard was a tree having a trunk with eight inch diameters or greater. The State’s expert testified that a guardrail would not have been required at the site of the accident tree applying standards prevalent at the time of trial.
The testimony of a single witness may be sufficient to establish substantial evidence, the Court said, and here, the jury as the exclusive judge of credibility was entitled to believe defendant’s witnesses.
The Court also concluded that substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding that State did not have actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. A public entity has actual notice of a dangerous condition if it had actual knowledge of the existence of the condition and knew or should have known of its dangerous character. A public entity has constructive notice of a dangerous condition only if the plaintiff establishes that the condition had existed for such a period of time and was of such an obvious nature that the public entity, in the exercise of due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.
Here, State employees planted the accident tree as well as other trees on the embankment. But the Court refused to fault the jury’s finding that the public property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident required it to also find the State had notice of that condition. On the evidence here, the jury could have concluded that the planting of the young eucalyptus tree on the embankment was not dangerous in 1979 or 1980 when that project was completed, but became dangerous only when its trunk grew to a larger diameter. Thus, while State may have had notice of the physical condition it had created — the presence of trees on the slope — the jury was entitled to conclude it did not have notice that the condition was dangerous. Substantial evidence supported such a conclusion, the Court held.
– Tom Root