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The Limits of California Governmental Immunity for Dangerous Conditions Near a Walking Trail  

According to the California Court of Appeal’s recent ruling in Toeppe v. City of San Diego, (2017) 13 Cal. App. 5th 921, government immunity for a dangerous condition on a walking trail does not extend to conditions extrinsic to the condition of the trail.

Lorin Toeppe was injured while walking through Mission Bay Park in San Diego when a branch from a eucalyptus tree fell and struck her.  Mission Bay Park is a large, completely manmade park in San Diego. All the trees within the park were planted by the city; they are not naturally occurring.  (Id. at 923.)  Toeppe sued the City of San Diego for negligence, and the city defended itself on the basis that it was immune from liability under Civil Code section 831.4.

Civil Code section 831.4 provides that “a public entity … is not liable for an injury cause by a condition of:

(a) any unpaved road which provides access to fishing hunting, camping, hiking, riding, including animal and all types of vehicular riding, water sports, recreational or scenic areas and which is not (1) city street or highway or (2) county, state, or federal highway or (3) public street or highway of a joint district, boulevard district, bridge and highway district, or similar district for the improvement or

(b) any trail used for the above purposes.”

The reason behind this policy is to encourage public entities to open property to public use by easing the burden and expense of having to defend against claims for injuries that might otherwise cause public entities to close land to the public. (Toeppe, supra, at 927, citing Amberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont (2006) 143 Cal. App. 4th 1074, 1078.)

The California Court of Appeal rejected the city’s argument that 831.4 was applicable, reversing the finding of the trial court. The Court of Appeal agreed with Toeppe that her claim was not based on the condition of the trail but instead on the dangerous condition caused by “the negligently maintained branches of the eucalyptus tree.”  (Toeppe, supra, at 926.)

Indeed, Toeppe did not even have to use the trail to encounter the dangerous condition as there were several picnic tables, benches, trash cans, and a grass area in the vicinity of the eucalyptus tree, leading the court to find that a person could encounter the dangerous condition independently of using the paved path that ran near the tree. (Id. at 928.) Indeed, the dangerous condition was not a property of the trail itself and the court neatly summarized its holding thusly: “This is not a case about trails. It is about trees.” (Id. at 932.) Therefore, trail immunity did not apply.

The court further differentiated the Amberger-Warren case on the basis that the dangerous condition in that case, the lack of a guardrail on a path leading over a hill to a dog park, was an actual condition of the trail because the hill was a naturally occurring condition that had to be encountered in order to reach the dog park. (Id. at 928–929.) That was not the case in Toeppe. The eucalyptus tree was twenty-five feet from the trail at its trunk, eucalyptus trees do not occur naturally in the area, and the city maintained the trees within the park. (Toeppe at 929.) Therefore, “the eucalyptus tree in the instant matter is not the same as the hill in Amberger-Warren.” (Id. at 929.)

The court similarly held that the Leyva v. Crockett & Co., Inc. (2017) 7 Cal. App. 5th 1105, was inapplicable. In Leyva, the plaintiff was struck in the eye by a golf ball while walking along a path directly adjacent to a golf course. (Toeppe, supra, at 929.) There the court held that the location of the path next to a golf course was an integral feature of the trail and stated that requiring a safety barrier, like the requested handrail in Amberger-Warren, would undermine the principle behind Civil Code section 831.4. (Leyva, supra, at 1110–1111.) Furthermore, the court pointed out that unlike the plaintiffs in Amberger-Warren and Leyva, Toeppe is not asking for some sort of safety barrier or that the path should be designed differently.  (Toeppe, supra, at 931.) Thus, the Toeppe court held Leyva was also distinguishable.

The takeaway from Toeppe is that if you are injured on or in the vicinity of a public trail, immunity for public entities under Civil Code section 831.4 is only applicable when the condition of the trail is itself the source of the injury.  Immunity does not apply to dangerous conditions unrelated to the trail.

(This is an attorney advertisement by Joshua Haffner)

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