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Antonio Cordova et al v. City of Los Angeles

December 20, 2012


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, William F. Fahey, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. Nos. BC442048, BC444004, BC443948)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Johnson, J.



Plaintiffs Antonio Cordova and Janis Cordova appeal judgment in their wrongful death action against the City of Los Angeles (City) based on the dangerous condition of the roadway. The Cordova's children Cristyn, Toni, and Andrew Cordova were killed in an automobile accident on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock, and claim that the City's design of the roadway, with trees in a center median, was in violation of principles of roadway design and maintenance which call for a clear zone. We affirm.


Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock is three lanes wide in either direction, and has grassy center medians planted with magnolia trees in the stretch immediately east of Eagle Rock Boulevard. Some of the medians have left-turn pockets, and are generally 15.5 feet wide. The posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour.

On August 27, 2008, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Cristyn Cordova was driving westbound on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock in the inside lane in her 2006 Nissan Maxima. Cristyn had four passengers--her sister Toni, her brother Andrew, her boyfriend Carlos Campos, and her friend Jason Gomez.*fn1 Everyone in the car was wearing their seatbelts. Driving next to Cristyn in another vehicle was Rostislav Shnayder. As Cristyn approached Hermosa Avenue, Shnayder's car veered into Cristyn's car, pushing her into the grassy median where her car hit a magnolia tree and crumpled. Cristyn and her unborn baby, Toni, Andrew, and Gomez were killed by the collision; Campos was seriously injured. Shnayder was arrested at the scene and later convicted of vehicular manslaughter. (Pen. Code, § 192, subd. (c)(2).)

On July 22, 2010, the Cordovas commenced this action for wrongful death against the City based on a dangerous condition of public property.*fn2 The Cordovas asserted that Colorado Boulevard was in a dangerous condition because, among other things, it did not have "clear zones"--that area of the roadway that must be left unobstructed and allow drivers to remain on the roadway. They alleged the magnolia tree on the median, the height of the curb, and other design features of Colorado Boulevard were in contravention of sound safety and engineering principles. They asserted that "the roadway had a 7-foot recovery zone which was inadequate" and "a large tree was . . . maintained with the minimum clear zone width, thereby presenting a non-crashworthy severe hazard to encroaching vehicles."

1. The City's Motion for Summary Judgment

On June 3, 2011, the City filed a motion for summary judgment based on its assertion that the subject center median of Colorado Boulevard was safe when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner; the median was not damaged, deteriorated, defective or latently hazardous in any fashion; and the accident that killed the Cordovas' children and Gomez and injured Campos was the result of third-party criminal conduct.

The City's evidence in support of its motion asserted that the speed limit on Colorado Boulevard is 35 miles per hour. At the time of the collision, Cristyn's car was travelling 68 miles per hour and Shnayder was traveling 66 miles per hour. The City's expert calculated this speed using accident reconstruction techniques, tire marks, and vehicle geometry. After Cristyn's car was sideswiped by Shnayder, she missed the first tree on the median and then began to rotate counter-clockwise and collided with the magnolia tree on the west end of the median. The magnolia tree had a 17-inch diameter. Cristyn did not have a valid driver's license, nor had she ever had one.

The segment of Colorado Boulevard between Hermosa Avenue and Highland View avenue where the accident occurred runs east/west, and Hermosa Avenue and Highland View Avenue run north/south. The speed limit was calculated by a speed study that determined 85 percent of vehicles traversing the area go between 35 and 40 miles per hour. The City's Department of Transportation (LADOT) designated Colorado Boulevard as a major scenic highway, but the designation did not determine the speed limit. The design of the relevant stretch of Colorado Boulevard from Townsend Avenue to Eagle Rock Boulevard was approved in July 1948.

According to the City's Bureau of Engineering (BOE) Street Design Manual, medians "serve as buffers between opposing traffic, provide refuge for pedestrians, and are strategic locations for traffic signs, traffic, signals, and landscaping." The inner two westbound lanes and inner three eastbound lanes of Colorado Boulevard are ten feet wide, and the left turn pocket is ten feet wide. The third lane is 19 feet wide to allow for parking. The center median between Hermosa Avenue and Highland View Avenue is 270 feet long and 15.5 feet wide before the left turn pocket begins. When the left turn pocket begins, the width of the median gradually decreases to about 5.5 feet. The City's expert found the construction of the median complied with the BOE's plans.

A minimum width of 14 feet is required where piers or abutments are located on medians. Under the Street Design Manual, center medians are suitable for fixed, immovable objects as long as there is five feet of clearance from the face of the structure to the inner edge of the painted traffic lane. The center median has a standard six-inch curb face, and there is seven feet of clearance from the magnolia tree to the inner edge of the painted traffic lane. Thus, the center median island and the positioning of the magnolia tree complied with the BOE's Street Design Manual.

Landscaping elements were not included in BOE and LADOT plans because those matters are under the authority of other departments, such as the Bureau of Street Services or the Department of Recreation and Parks. Nonetheless, the median island and the magnolia trees are easily visible and readily apparent to motorists exercising due care and paying attention to their surroundings. The City's expert was aware of "[n]o widely accepted design guideline which is applicable to low-speed roadways" that indicates "it is inappropriate to position fixed, immovable objects adjacent to the roadway." On the contrary, "it would be impractical, if not impossible to apply such a rule regarding clear zones in urban settings. To provide such a 'clear zone,' items such as parked cars, utility poles, bridge columns, buildings, public transit structures, bus benches, and signs would have to be eliminated from center medians and sidewalk areas."

The City contended under the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)*fn3 "guidelines for the provision of a clear zone [did] not apply [because those] guidelines were developed to apply to state highways and to high-speed generally rural roadways with limited access." The relevant segment of Colorado Boulevard was low speed and high access with local streets regularly intersecting it. According to AASHTO, immovable objects may be positioned in low speed roadways as long as they are at least 18 inches from the face of the curb. The City's expert did not believe the magnolia tree was ...

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