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Quigley v. Garden Valley Fire Protection District

Supreme Court of California

July 15, 2019

REBECCA MEGAN QUIGLEY, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
GARDEN VALLEY FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.

         Third Appellate District C079270

          Superior Court Plumas County CV1000225 Janet HildeJudge

          Jay-Allen Eisen Law Corporation, Downey Brand, Jay-Allen Eisen; Law Offices of Reiner & Slaughter, Reiner, Slaughter, McCartney & Frankel, Russell Reiner, Todd E. Slaughter and April K. Gesberg for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Alan Charles Dell'Ario for Consumer Attorneys of California as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, Joseph A. Salazar, Jr., Jeffry A. Miller, Lann G. McIntyre and Jonna D. Lothyan for Defendants and Respondents.

          Pollak, Vida & Barer and Daniel P. Barer for League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, California Association of Joint Powers Authorities, California Special Districts Association and International Municipal Lawyers Association as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.

          Justice Kruger authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Chin, Corrigan, Liu, Cuéllar, and Groban concurred.

          OPINION

          Kruger, J.

         The Government Claims Act (Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.) authorizes plaintiffs to bring certain tort claims against public entities, while also immunizing public entities from liability in particular circumstances. One of the act's immunity provisions bars any statutory liability that might otherwise exist for injuries resulting from the condition of firefighting equipment or facilities. (Id., § 850.4.) The question presented is whether this immunity provision constitutes an affirmative defense that may be forfeited if not timely raised or instead serves as a limitation on the fundamental jurisdiction of the courts, such that the issue can never be forfeited or waived. We conclude that Government Code section 850.4 immunity does not deprive a court of fundamental jurisdiction but rather operates as an affirmative defense to liability.

         I.

         A.

         Enacted in 1963, the Government Claims Act (GCA or Act) is a comprehensive statutory scheme governing the liabilities and immunities of public entities and public employees for torts. (Kiser v. County of San Mateo (1991) 53 Cal.3d 139, 145.) For many decades before the Act, tort liability for public entity defendants was barred by a common law rule of governmental immunity. Over time, however, the common law rule became “riddled with exceptions, ” both legislative and judge-made, and in 1961 this court abolished the rule altogether. (Muskopf v. Corning Hospital Dist. (1961) 55 Cal.2d 211, 216 (Muskopf).) In response to Muskopf, the Legislature temporarily suspended the decision's effect (Stats. 1961, ch. 1404, pp. 3209-3210) and directed the California Law Revision Commission to complete a study of the issue it had begun some years earlier (see Assem. Conc. Res. No. 22, Stats. 1957 (1956-1957 Reg. Sess.) res. ch. 202, p. 4590; Cal. Government Tort Liability Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 4th ed. 1999) Legislative Response: Government Claims Act, § 1.40; DeMoully, Fact Finding for Legislation: A Case Study (1964) 50 A.B.A. J. 285). The end product of the commission's study was a series of recommendations (see, e.g., Recommendation Relating to Sovereign Immunity, No. 1-Tort Liability of Public Entities and Public Employees (Jan. 1963) 4 Cal. Law Revision Com. Rep. (1963) p. 801), on which the Legislature relied in enacting the GCA (see DeMoully, at p. 286).[1]

         The basic architecture of the Act is encapsulated in Government Code section 815. Subdivision (a) of that section makes clear that under the GCA, there is no such thing as common law tort liability for public entities; a public entity is not liable for an injury “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by statute.” (Gov. Code, § 815; see Guzman v. County of Monterey (2009) 46 Cal.4th 887, 897.) The GCA provides several grounds for public entity liability, including, as relevant here, for injuries caused “by a dangerous condition of [a public entity's] property” that was created through an employee's negligence. (Gov. Code, § 835, subd. (a).)

         But even when there are statutory grounds for imposing liability, subdivision (b) of section 815 provides that a public entity's liability is “subject to any immunity of the public entity provided by statute.” (Gov. Code, § 815, subd. (b).) Government Code section 850.4 (section 850.4), the provision at issue in this case, establishes one such immunity: “Neither a public entity, nor a public employee acting in the scope of his employment, is liable for any injury resulting from the condition of fire protection or firefighting equipment or facilities or, ” with the exception of certain motor vehicle accidents, “for any injury caused in fighting fires.” Section 850.4 was enacted at the recommendation of the Law Revision Commission. The commission's report to the Legislature explained section 850.4's purpose as follows: “There are adequate incentives to careful maintenance of fire equipment without imposing tort liability; and firemen should not be deterred from any action they may desire to take in combatting fires by a fear that liability might be imposed if a jury believes such action to be unreasonable.” (4 Cal. Law Revision Com. Rep., supra, at p. 862; see Heieck and Moran v. City of Modesto (1966) 64 Cal.2d 229, 233, fn. 3 (Heieck and Moran).)[2]

         B.

         In September 2009, a wildfire known as the Silver Fire broke out in the Plumas National Forest. Employees of two local fire protection districts managed a base camp set up at a local fairground for the firefighting response. The base camp management team allowed firefighters resting in between firefighting shifts to sleep in tents and sleeping bags near a portable shower unit. Plaintiff Rebecca Megan Quigley, a United States Forest Service firefighter, was sleeping in this area when she was run over by a water truck servicing the shower unit. She sustained serious and permanent injuries.

         Quigley sued three base camp managers-the facility unit leader, logistics chief, and camp safety officer-as well as their employers, the Chester Fire Protection District and the Garden Valley Fire Protection District.[3] She alleged that defendants were negligent in permitting firefighters to sleep in the area where she was run over, without roping the area off or posting signs forbidding vehicles from entering. She claimed defendants had thereby created a “dangerous condition” of public property, for which public entities may be held liable under section 835 of the Government Code.

         In their answer, defendants alleged 38 affirmative defenses, including 11 defenses asserting immunity under 17 individually cited sections of the GCA. These individually cited defenses ranged from property inspection immunity (Gov. Code, § 818.6) to discretionary act immunity (id., § 820.2). Defendants did not allege the immunity conferred by section 850.4. They did, however, raise a fifteenth affirmative defense that cited inclusively to all immunities under the GCA: “A public entity and its employees are immune from liability for damages alleged in the complaint and Defendants assert all defenses and rights granted to them by the provisions of Government Code sections 810 through 996.6, inclusive.”

         Trial began more than four years after the complaint was filed. After Quigley's counsel completed his opening statement, defense counsel presented a written motion for nonsuit, in which defendants for the first time invoked section 850.4. Quigley objected on the ground that defendants had waived any argument they might have under section 850.4 by failing to invoke the immunity in their answer. (See Code Civ. Proc., § 430.80, subd. (a).)[4]

         The trial court overruled Quigley's objection, reasoning that defendants could not have waived section 850.4 immunity because “governmental immunity is jurisdictional and can't be waived.” On the merits, the trial court agreed with defendants that Quigley's cause of action sought recovery for injuries caused by a condition ...


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