California Appeals Court Reverses Ruling for City in Tree Branch Injury Case

A tree branch fell on a woman while she and her boyfriend were walking through Mission Bay Park. She filed suit against the City of San Diego, alleging the existence of a dangerous condition on public property, namely a negligently maintained eucalyptus tree. The city prevailed on summary judgment, arguing that the woman was struck by the tree branch while standing on a trail; thus, the city could not be liable, pursuant to Government Code section 831.4 (trail immunity). The woman appealed. First, she asserted that trail immunity does not apply under the facts of this case. To this end, she emphasized that her claim of a dangerous condition was based on a negligently maintained eucalyptus tree, rather than the condition of the trail passing through the park. Second, she contended that even if trail immunity did apply, a disputed issue of material fact existed as to where she was located when the branch struck her. The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed. The woman’s claim in this case did not give rise to trail immunity. In addition, there was a disputed issue of material fact as to where she was when the branch struck her. Thus, the appeals court reversed.

The appeals court therefore first outlined the applicable law. The complaint alleged a single cause of action for a dangerous condition of public property. Pursuant to section 830(a), a dangerous condition of public property means a condition of property that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial, or insignificant) risk of injury when such property or adjacent property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used. The elements for that cause of action are: (1) a dangerous condition of public property; (2) a foreseeable risk, arising from the dangerous condition, of the kind of injury the plaintiff suffered; (3) actionable conduct in connection with the condition, i.e., either negligence on the part of a public employee in creating it or a failure by the entity to correct it after notice of its existence and dangerousness; (4) a causal relationship between the dangerous condition and the plaintiff’s injuries; and (5) compensable damages sustained by the plaintiff.

The woman argued the city managed and maintained both Mission Bay Park and the trees within it, including the eucalyptus tree whose branch fell on her. She claimed that between 2004 and 2013, a city employee actively and negligently trimmed the tree’s branches, removing low-hanging and hazardous branches. According to her, the city created and was aware of a dangerous condition on public property, namely the negligently maintained branches of the eucalyptus tree. As a result, she alleged the city was liable for the harm caused by the falling branch.

The city maintained it was entitled to summary judgment under trail immunity under section 831.4. That section provides that a public entity is not liable for an injury caused by any unpaved road or trail that provides access to fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, riding, water sports, recreational, or scenic areas and that is not a (1) city street or highway or (2) county, state, or federal highway or (3) public street or highway of a joint highway district, boulevard district, or similar district formed for the improvement or building of public streets or highways. Immunity is afforded to encourage public entities to open their property for public recreational use, since the burden and expense of keeping such property in a safe condition and the expense of defending claims for injuries would probably cause many public entities to close such areas to public use.

The parties agreed that the paved trail running through Mission Bay Park is a trail pursuant to section 831.4. The woman emphasized, however, that she was not basing her claim on a condition of the trail. Instead, she argued that the negligently maintained eucalyptus tree was the dangerous condition giving rise to the city’s liability and her damages. The city countered that the woman was on the trail when she was struck by the branch, and the dangerous condition at issue here was connected to the trail.

Here, the appeals court reasoned, evidence was offered that the eucalyptus tree was not part of the trail, with the tree’s base 25 feet from the edge of the trail. Also, Mission Bay Park is man-made, and the trees in the park, like the eucalyptus tree, were not naturally occurring in that area. Instead, they were planted when the park was created. And the city maintained the trees in Mission Bay Park.

In short, the court concluded that this was not a case about trails. It was about trees. This was not a case in which the woman had to walk on a trail to reach a dangerous condition, or a dangerous condition was part of the design of the trail. Instead, she was injured when a tree branch struck her. She maintained the branch fell on her because the city was negligent in maintaining the eucalyptus trees in the park. There were no allegations that she was harmed based on a condition of the trail. There were no allegations that she was injured because of the location or design of the trail. On the record, the appeals court found no basis on which to apply trail immunity.

The court further explained that even if it were to assume trail immunity applied, it nevertheless would conclude that summary judgment was inappropriate. Specifically, the evidence provided by the woman was sufficient to create a disputed issue of material fact regarding where she was standing when the branch struck her. Indeed, the court acknowledged it was disputed whether she was on the paved trail when she was injured. Because of this disputed material fact, summary judgment was improper.

Finally, the court held it wasn’t persuaded by the city’s argument that finding trail immunity did not apply could result in the closing of city parks in which trees exist. Although it might be prudent for the city to evaluate its maintenance of trees in its parks, the court stated, it did not foresee several park closures based on this opinion. The court concluded trail immunity was not applicable, based on the woman’s allegations and the evidence submitted in support of and in opposition to the city’s motion for summary judgment.

The premises liability lawyers at Neumann Law Group represent victims throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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