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Curtis v. County of Los Angeles

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Fourth Division

July 30, 2013

PAUL CURTIS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, Defendant and Respondent.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County Nos. MC021243, MC021242 and MC022270, Randolph A. Rogers, Judge.

Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, Geoffrey S. Wells, Tobin M. Lanzetta; Esner, Chang & Boyer, Stuart B. Esner, and Andrew N. Chang for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Collins Collins Muir Stewart, Melinda W. Ebelhar, Christian E. Foy Nagy, and Erin R. Dunkerly for Defendant and Respondent.

MANELLA, J.

INTRODUCTION

Appellants Paul Curtis and his wife, Desiree Munoz, sued respondent County of Los Angeles for injuries sustained in a vehicle collision precipitated by another motorist, Andres Salazar Meza, while driving on Sierra Highway. The trial court granted respondents’ motion for summary judgment, and appellants appealed. In affirming, we conclude that respondent showed that with the exception of the lack of a center median space or barrier, appellants could not raise a triable issue of fact that their injuries were “proximately caused by the dangerous condition[s]” alleged in their complaint. The evidence established that the accident was caused by Meza’s intentional act of crossing the double yellow line into oncoming traffic. With respect to any harm arising from the lack of a center median, respondent established its entitlement to design immunity, by showing that an authorized official exercised his discretional authority to approve plans for the highway that included neither a median space nor a barrier.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

On May 18, 2009, Andres Salazar Meza was driving eastbound on Sierra Highway, in the lane closest to the double yellow line. Curtis was driving behind Meza, with Munoz as his sole passenger. At approximately 5:10 p.m., Meza crossed over into the westbound lanes, hitting a vehicle driven by Shaun Glendenning. The collision caused Glendenning’s vehicle to spin and cross over into the eastbound lanes, hitting appellants’ vehicle head on.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

On April 22, 2010, appellants filed a first amended complaint for damages, alleging causes of action for dangerous condition of public property (Gov. Code, § 835)[1] and vicarious liability (§§ 815.4 & 815.2, subd. (a)) against respondent, and a cause of action for negligence against Meza. Appellants alleged they suffered severe and permanent injuries as a result of a multi-vehicle traffic accident initiated by Meza.[2] They further alleged that the accident resulted from dangerous conditions of the road, which were created by the negligent, careless, and reckless acts or failures to act of respondent. These negligent or reckless acts or failures to act included: (1) failure to install any barrier at the accident location, (2) failure in the design of the width of the road, (3) failure in the design of the superelevation or banking of the road, (4) failure to include an adequate and appropriate median area, (5) failure in the design of the width of the shoulders, (6) failure to properly warn of dangerous conditions, (7) failure in the striping of the road, (8) failure to properly and adequately align the road, and (9) failure to design and maintain the road. Appellants also alleged that the average operational speed on Sierra Highway was 60 to 65 miles per hour (mph), and that the curve radius and superelevation of Sierra Highway did not meet current highway design standards for that operational speed.

Respondent filed an answer, generally denying the allegations. Respondent asserted numerous affirmative defenses, including (1) that it was immune for the design of the road pursuant to section 830.6, and (2) that “[t]he sole cause of the accident... was the negligence of... M[eza] who negligently and carelessly crossed over into an opposing lane of traffic.”

On March 31, 2011, respondent filed a motion for summary judgment. It asserted that the accident was not caused by a dangerous condition of public property, as the road at the accident location was “safe to foreseeable users when used with due care, ” and Meza had acknowledged that his own negligence caused the multi-vehicle accident. Respondent argued in the alternative that even if the accident resulted from a dangerous condition of the road, it was immune from liability pursuant to section 830.6, the design immunity statute, as the allegedly dangerous conditions of the road were considered and approved by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (DPW). Finally, respondent contended that the cause of action for vicarious liability was not viable, as the sole basis for imposing liability on a public entity for harms arising from alleged property defects is section 835.

In a declaration filed in support of the motion for summary judgment, William Winter stated that he was a licensed civil engineer who, since April 2003, had served as an assistant deputy director and later the deputy director of the DPW. As an assistant deputy director, he had the delegated authority to review and approve plans for county highways. Winter stated that in 2003, he approved “Specification and Plans” for Sierra Highway (the 2003 plans). He stated that in preparing the 2003 plans, “DPW reviewed and considered, among other factors, ... the absence of a center median space and center median barrier....” Winter stated that in his professional engineering judgment, “a center median... [was] not feasible due to a variety of technical reasons.... In addition[, ] there were property ownership reasons and environmental considerations that would preclude any immediate change to the alignment or cross section of Sierra Highway.” He further stated that “in order to even consider installing a center median barrier[, ] there would need to be a center median of at least ten feet (10’) in width. Technical, property ownership and environmental considerations preclude[d] any immediate installation of a center median that is 10’ in width.”

A copy of the 2003 plans was attached to Winter’s declaration. The plans included design drawings showing a detailed section of Sierra Highway. The drawings showed no median space or median barrier.

In 2007, Winter approved a “Signage Plan” for Sierra Highway, which added yellow flashing beacons along the highway (the 2007 plans). Winter stated that in preparing the 2007 plans, “DPW reviewed and considered the then-existing conditions of the Sierra Highway including... the absence of a center median....” The design drawings for the 2007 plans show where yellow flashing signals would be added. They showed no median space or median barrier.

Appellants opposed the motion for summary judgment, asserting that respondent had failed to meet its burden of showing it was entitled to design immunity. Appellants argued that “[n]either of the [2003 or 2007] interim plans demonstrates that geometric features which plaintiffs allege caused the accident -- the curve radii and superelevation of the subject highway curves -- were even considered, much less designed and approved by an individual with discretionary authority to approve such geometric design features.” Assuming there was design immunity, appellants contended it was lost when respondent allegedly “acknowledged” that the highway had become dangerous but did not remedy the danger in a reasonable time.

In support of the opposition, appellants submitted a declaration by Harry J. Krueper, Jr., a licensed civil engineer and traffic engineer. Krueper stated that after his firm was retained by appellants in 2010, the firm’s staff conducted a field survey of the accident site and “ball bank” tests. The field survey showed that the highway lanes and shoulder widths were narrower than recommended by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the State of California. The ball bank tests indicated that the curve of the road was safe for vehicles traveling at 55 mph. A spot speed test of the road indicated that the “85th percentile speed” was 61 mph for westbound traffic, and 61.3 mph for eastbound traffic. Based on the field survey and the ball bank and speed tests, Krueper opined that Sierra Highway was dangerous under normal highway use.

Krueper also opined that there had been a “high accident rate” for the 0.47 mile area of Sierra Highway that included the accident site. His opinion was based upon a review of California Highway Patrol records showing there had been 64 accidents in the decade from 1999 to 2009.

Appellants also submitted a declaration by Matthew Manjarrez. Manjarrez, a registered civil engineer and traffic engineer, stated that Sierra Highway is characterized by high traffic volume and high traffic speed. He stated, “[a] large number of various count data from 2003 through 2010... [showed] the average daily traffic on Sierra Highway at the subject location was approximately 41, 000 vehicles per day. This is consistent with the Engineering and Traffic Survey conducted in November 2001, which identified an average daily traffic volume at the subject location of 41, 338.” Manjarrez also stated that in January 2006, speed survey data showed that the 85th percentile speed of drivers on northbound Sierra Highway traffic near the subject ...


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