A Public Entity’s Failure To Take Action To Prevent Injury On An Adjacent Property Does Not Make The Public Entity’s Property A Dangerous Condition

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Feb 28, 2020

In the City of Del Mar, a railroad right-of-way owned by the local transit district runs along the top of the ocean bluff, perpendicular to the end of the street. A guardrail on City property prevents automobiles from continuing past the end of the street to reach transit district’s right-of-way, but pedestrians are able to walk around the guardrail to access right-of-way and the train tracks.

Members of the public frequently walk around the guardrail and access right-of-way to walk next to the train tracks, and over the years, there have been multiple train-related injuries, fatalities, and near misses along the bluff. Despite these instances, the City did not erect a fence or barrier to prevent pedestrians from walking around the guardrail.

On the night of September 24, 2016, Javad Hedayatzadeh and two friends walked around the guardrail and crossed the train tracks, knowing that they were trespassing on transit district property. Javad noticed a freight train coming from the south and told his friends that he was going to use his phone to take a video “selfie” of himself next to the train. As Javad neared the train tracks, the train struck and killed him. The location where the train struck Javad was more than 40 feet from the City’s property.

Javad’s father, Hedayatzadeh, filed a lawsuit against the City, alleging a single cause of action against the City for dangerous condition of public property. The suit alleged that the City property adjacent to the railroad right-of-way was in a dangerous condition as it exposed the using public to a substantial risk of injury when the public used it in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

In response to the suit, the City moved for judgment in its favor on the grounds that, as a matter of law, the City’s own property was not in a dangerous condition. After considering the evidence and argument presented by the parties, the trial court granted the City’s motion. The trial court explained that Hedayatzadeh did not meet his burden of showing that the City created, enhanced, or intensified a danger to the public. Hedayatzadeh appealed the decision.

The Court of Appeal first examined the law governing liability for a dangerous condition of public property, and the circumstances under which courts may hold a public entity liable for injuries caused by such conditions. The Court examined Government Code section 835, which establishes the requirements for liability based on a dangerous condition of public property. The Court then reviewed a related statute which provides that a condition is not a dangerous condition if the risk created by the condition was so minor that no reasonable person would conclude that the condition created a substantial risk of injury if the property was used with due care. The Court concluded that the existence of a dangerous condition is ordinarily a question of fact, but that the issue may be resolved as a matter of law if reasonable minds can come to only one conclusion as to whether the property constituted a dangerous condition.

The Court of Appeal then reviewed relevant case law to determine whether, as a matter of law, a dangerous condition existed on the City property.

Hedayatzadeh took the position that City’s property posed a dangerous condition because it is adjacent to the transit district’s right-of-way containing the train tracks, the train tracks pose a danger to trespassers, and the City has not taken any action, such as constructing a fence, to prevent pedestrians from walking around the guardrail and trespassing on train tracks. The City argued that it did not create a dangerous condition on its property.  It argued that the dangerous condition was not on its property.

The Court explained that under certain circumstance a hazardous condition on an adjacent property may give rise to liability for a dangerous condition of public property.  The Court gave an example of a tree located on public property with a decayed limb overhanging private property thus creating a hazard to that property and the persons on it. Similarly, a hazard on an adjacent property may give rise to liability for a dangerous condition of public property when persons using public property are exposed to injury.  Here the Court gave the example of a tree located on adjacent obstructing the motorists’ view of approaching vehicles on a public street.

Next, the Court examined instances in which a public entity undertakes an affirmative act that put users of public property into danger from adjacent property, such as placing a bus stop at a location that encouraged bus patrons to cross a busy street to reach the bus stop, although a less dangerous location was available. The Court then analyzed whether a public entity that did not engage in any affirmative act but merely failed to prevent users from leaving the public property and willfully accessing a hazard on the adjacent property could be liable for its failure to prevent the danger to the users. The Court concluded that in such circumstances case law does not extend liability to the public entity.

The Court held that the City is not liable as a matter of law for merely failing to erect a barrier at the site of the guardrail to prevent pedestrians from choosing to enter a hazardous area on the transit district’s adjacent right-of-way.

Hedayatzadeh v. City of Del Mar (2020) 44 Cal.App.5th 555.