On April 27, 2023, the California Supreme Court in Tansavatdi v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes held that design immunity in the case is limited to a claim alleging that a public entity created a dangerous roadway condition through a defective design, but did not extend to a claim alleging that a public entity failed to warn of a design element that resulted in a dangerous roadway condition. In short, a public agency’s “design immunity” defense is limited in the context of “failure to warn” claims.
In Tansavatdi, plaintiff sued the City of Rancho Palos Verdes (“City”) for wrongful death after her son, while riding his bike, was killed in a collision with a 80-foot tractor trailer that was in the process of turning right at an intersection. Prior to the collision, plaintiff’s son approached the intersection of the accident and rode into the right turn lane since it did not have a bike lane. The cyclist continued riding straight through the intersection as the driver of the truck began making a right turn prior to the collision. The driver of the truck thought the cyclist would also be turning right due to being in the right turn only lane.
Plaintiff alleged against the City claims of a dangerous condition of public property under California Government Code Section 835 and failure to warn of a dangerous condition not reasonably apparent to cyclists and motorists. The alleged dangerous condition was the absence of a bike lane on the downhill, half mile-long section of roadway where the accident occurred and the failure to warn that the bike lane temporarily stopped in that section.
The Supreme Court emphasized that design immunity was never intended to be absolute defense in dangerous condition cases. The Court clarified that public entities can be held liable for failure to warn of dangerous roadway conditions, even if the entity is otherwise insulated from liability for the same dangerous condition under design immunity. The Court, relying on its holding in Cameron v. State of California (1972) 7 Cal.3d 318, provided that while “[design immunity] shields public entities from liability for injuries resulting from the design of the physical features of a roadway, they nonetheless retain a duty to warn of known dangers that the roadway presents to the public.” The Court noted that it would be illogical that design immunity was intended to allow government entities to remain silent when they have notice that a reasonably approved design presents a danger to the public. The Court refused to express a view on whether design immunity could apply where the presence or absence of signs was a considered element of the design because that issue was not before the Court.
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Gina J. Chung is an associate with the Firm and focuses her practice on general municipal law issues, risk management and torts and litigation. Ms. Chung's practice emphasis on advising public agencies on record-related matters such as public records requests, subpoenas, police personnel records requests and Pitchess motions. She also educates and assist public agencies in developing procedures an...