There are two broad categories under which a state, city, county or other governmental agency (a “public entity”) can be held legally responsible (“liable”) for injuries to or deaths of a member of the public: either by its individual employees acting carelessly or recklessly, or by a dangerous condition existing on property that is owned or leased by the public entity.
Unless expressly stated otherwise in the California Government Code, an employee of a public entity is liable for the injuries he or she causes due to carelessness (“negligence”) to the same extent as a private person, and the public entity the employee works for is vicariously liable for any injuries or deaths its employees cause to the same extent as a private employer.
Although it does not guarantee the safety of persons using its streets, highways, roads, and lands, a public entity does have the duty to design, construct, and maintain its streets, highways, and lands in a reasonably safe condition for travel and use by members of the public. The vast majority of claims of unsafe dangerous conditions of public lands involves streets, highways, and roads. Generally speaking, a public entity is not required to install traffic signs, signals, street markings, etc. if the absence of the sign or signals are what make the street or intersection dangerous. However, the public entity may be required to install signs and warning devices to alert travelers to an upcoming danger. Of course, if a pubic entity has installed safety devices that the public has come to rely on, the public entity has the obligation (“duty”) to maintain its warning devices and signs in good working order.
In cases involving an alleged dangerous condition of property, the public entity usually asserts the defense of “design immunity.” To succeed with its defense of design immunity, the public entity must prove three things:
(1) the project design was a cause of the accident;
(2) there was discretionary approval of the design prior to construction; and
(3) substantial evidence supports the reasonableness of the design.
The main issue in many of these cases is the second element, whether the public entity did indeed approve the design before construction. If the design was not approved, or the design was changed after its initial approval but the changes were not approved by the governmental entity, the design immunity argument will fail.
Sometimes the approval of a condition becomes dangerous over a period of time. For instance, the failure to build a concrete median between opposite lanes of traffic separated by a grass median was found to be a dangerous condition of property, as over the years a number of accidents in which a car had slid across the grass median into oncoming traffic had occurred. Failing to erect a cement or steel-reinforced barrier to protect vehicles from skidding off the road on a sharp, steep off-ramp has also been found to constitute a dangerous condition of property.
If you have been injured by the negligence of a public employee or by a dangerous condition on public land, you should promptly consult an experienced plaintiff’s personal injury law firm to protect your rights. Special rules apply in lawsuits against public entities, foremost among them is that you must present a claim to the appropriate governmental agency within six months of the injury or death. An experienced personal injury knows what information is required to be in the written claim and knows the proper place to file it.