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Grace Dammann et al v. Golden Gate Bridge

December 20, 2012

GRACE DAMMANN ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, HIGHWAY AND TRANSPORTATION DISTRICT, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



Trial Court: Marin County Superior Court Trial Judge: Hon. James R. Ritchie (Marin County Super. Ct. No. CV093298)

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

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Plaintiffs Grace Dammann and Sabrina Schroeder-Dammann (collectively, Dammann), appeal from the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (District). Dammann alleged in their suit that the District, as the owner of a public property on which a dangerous condition existed, was liable for personal injuries they incurred in a cross-over accident on the Golden Gate Bridge (Bridge). They argue the trial court erred in ruling that the District was immune from their suit based on the affirmative defense of design immunity, related to the District's 1985 decision not to install moveable median barriers (MMB's) on the Bridge.

Among other things, Dammann argues that the District lost this design immunity when it became aware by 1998 that certain technological advances in MMB's made it appropriate to install an MMB on the Bridge, which advances were "changed physical conditions" that would have eliminated the existing dangerous condition on the Bridge, i.e., the lack of a median barrier. Dammann also argues that a 1979 amendment to Government Code section 830.6 (section 830.6) was such that a triable issue of fact existed regarding what design could reasonably be approved in light of these technological advances.

We conclude, based on the analyses and determinations by our Supreme Court in Baldwin v. State of California (1972) 6 Cal.3d 424, 438 (Baldwin) and Cornette v. Dept. of Transportation (2001) 26 Cal.4th 63 (Cornette), as well as that of numerous appellate courts, that the technological advances relied on by Dammann do not constitute the "changed physical conditions" required to end design immunity because such physical conditions must exist at the public property in question, and that this requirement was not affected by the 1979 amendment to section 830.6 so as to create a triable issue of fact in this case. Therefore, we affirm the judgment. Given our conclusions, we need not address the remainder of Dammann's arguments.

BACKGROUND

The parties do not dispute the facts we recite herein for the purposes of District's summary judgment motion. In July 2009, Dammann filed a complaint in Marin County Superior Court. Dammann alleged that on May 21, 2008, while they were travelling northbound on the Bridge, their vehicle was struck by a southbound vehicle that had crossed over to the northbound lane and struck their vehicle head on. Dammann alleged that various dangerous conditions existed on the Bridge on the date of the accident, including the District's failure to install an affordable barrier device with full knowledge of the ongoing dangers presented to motorists by virtue of cross-over collisions.

Dammann's complaint further alleged that a workable, affordable, and fully tested MMB would have eliminated cross-over accidents, had been available for more than 15 years, and had been recommended for installation by competent traffic engineers. Dammann further alleged that the District had notice of the dangers created by the lack of an MMB, but unreasonably and negligently refused to install it, resulting in a dangerous condition that caused Dammann's accident and resulting severe personal injuries. Dammann sought compensatory damages pursuant to the claim that the District owned public property on which a dangerous condition existed.

The District answered and asserted as one affirmative defense that it had design immunity pursuant to section 830.6. In February 2009, the District filed an amended motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, summary adjudication. One argument made by the District was that it was immune from suit due to design immunity that it had retained for its 1985 decision not to install an MMB, as recognized in Sutton v. Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation Dist. (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 1149 (Sutton), and that there were no changed physical conditions that had caused it to lose this immunity.

Dammann opposed the motion, asserting that the District had lost its design immunity due to, among other things, technological advances in MMB designs and their installation on two comparable bridges, the Auckland Harbour Bridge in New Zealand and the Coronado Bridge in San Diego, California. Dammann asserted that the data from these two bridges and new studies showed that in 1985, the District decided not to install MMB's based on the false conclusions that they would result in much higher accident rates and create various secondary problems, and demonstrated that the Bridge was in a dangerous condition due to the lack of an MMB. Dammann further asserted that the District knew of these technological advances and approved of them for installation on the Bridge by 1998, knew the lack of an MMB created a dangerous condition on the Bridge, and had a reasonable amount of time to perform the necessary remedial work and obtain funding before Dammann's accident in 2008.

The trial court granted summary judgment, including on the ground that Dammann had failed to submit adequate evidence of "changed physical conditions" sufficient to result in a loss of design immunity pursuant to Cornette, supra, 26 Cal.4th 63. The court subsequently entered judgment in the District's favor. Dammann filed a timely notice of appeal.

DISCUSSION

Dammann presents four categories of arguments in their appeal. They argue that (1) the technological advances in MMB's that they relied on in opposition to the District's summary judgment motion constituted the changed physical conditions required to defeat an affirmative defense of design immunity; (2) a 1979 amendment to section 830.6 was such that a triable issue of fact existed regarding what design could reasonably be approved in light of these advances; (3) the Bridge was in a dangerous condition because of the lack of a median barrier; and (4) the trial court erred in sustaining the District's evidentiary objections to certain evidence. We address Dammann's first two arguments and, because we conclude they lack merit and are dispositive, do not address Dammann's third and fourth arguments.

I. Standard of Review

A trial court properly grants summary judgment if the record establishes no triable issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) A party moving for summary judgment "bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 850, fn. omitted (Aguilar).) "There is a triable issue of material fact if, and only if, the evidence would allow a reasonable trier of fact to find the underlying fact in favor of the party opposing the motion in accordance with the applicable standard of proof." (Ibid., fn. omitted.) "A defendant bears the burden of persuasion that 'one or more elements of' the 'cause of action' in question 'cannot be established,' or that 'there is a complete defense' thereto. [Citation.]" (Ibid.)

Generally, "the party moving for summary judgment bears an initial burden of production to make a prima facie showing of the nonexistence of any triable issue of material fact; if he carries his burden of production, he causes a shift, and the opposing party is then subjected to a burden of production of his own to make a prima facie showing of the existence of a triable issue of material fact. . . . A prima facie showing is one that is sufficient to support the position of the party in question. [Citation.]" (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) Although the burden of production shifts, the moving party always bears the burden of persuasion. (Id. at p. 850.) "There is a triable issue of material fact if, and only if, the evidence would allow a reasonable trier of fact to find the underlying fact in favor of the party opposing the motion in accordance with the applicable standard of proof." (Ibid.)

The standard of review for an order granting or denying summary judgment is de novo. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 860.) We are not bound by the trial court's stated reasons for granting summary relief, as we review the trial court's ruling, not its rationale. (Kids' Universe v. In2Labs (2002) 95 Cal.App.4th 870, 878.) In determining whether the parties have met their respective burdens, we consider "all of the evidence the parties offered in connection with the motion (except that which the court properly excluded) and the uncontradicted inferences the evidence reasonably supports." (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 476.) We view the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs as the parties opposing summary judgment, strictly scrutinizing defendants' evidence in order to resolve any evidentiary doubts or ambiguities in plaintiffs' favor. (Johnson v. American Standard, Inc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 56, 64.)

II. Changed Physical Conditions

Dammann first argues that the trial court incorrectly adopted one of two District arguments to conclude that technological advances made regarding MMB's between 1985 and 1998 did not constitute "changed physical conditions." According to Dammann, the first District argument, that technological advances cannot constitute changed circumstances, was "ostensibly abandoned." The District's second argument, that only an increased accident rate will satisfy the changed physical conditions requirement, was adopted by the court. Dammann contends this argument is unsupported by any law, requiring reversal.

The District responds with a number of arguments, including that the trial court correctly held that technological advances did not constitute changed physical conditions. The District argues this conclusion is supported by the law and public policy, and that no cases have held to the contrary. In their reply brief, Dammann acknowledges this was a ruling of the trial court but disagrees that it is correct.

We conclude that, as a matter of law, the technological advances regarding MMB's relied on by Dammann did not constitute the "changed physical conditions" required to defeat an affirmative defense of design immunity. Accordingly, the trial court did not err regarding this dispositive issue.

A. The Proceedings Below

In its motion for summary judgment, the District asserted that it had retained design immunity in the absence of any evidence of a change in physical conditions on the Bridge. Among other things, the District contended that "[t]here has been no change in the physical condition of the [Bridge's] traveled way since the Deck Replacement Project was approved in 1985." Dammann disputed this contention, alleging "that there are changed physical conditions within the meaning of Cornette which depends on many factors, including new technological advances and studies and data obtained by the District between 1985 and 1998. New technology is a changed physical condition which was ...


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