• Dangerous Condition Liability: Improvements on Other Public Properties Do Not Defeat Design Immunity
  • January 9, 2013 | Authors: Christopher M. Pisano; G. Ross Trindle
  • Law Firm: Best Best & Krieger LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Overview: A California appellate court recently held that the availability and implementation of safety improvements on other public properties do not constitute “changed physical conditions” sufficient to defeat design immunity. The court explained that the required changes in condition must exist at the public property in question, not somewhere else. Thus, plaintiffs alleging injuries incurred on the Golden Gate Bridge could not point to the use of median barriers on other bridges as a “changed physical condition” on the bridge in question. As such, design immunity applied and plaintiffs could not recover damages.

    Practical Points: This ruling helps defeat a common argument regarding the alleged failure to provide “state of the art” safety features in public facilities. The mere availability and implementation of certain design features on other properties will not defeat design immunity under the Government Code. Although design immunity can shield a public entity from dangerous condition liability, the defense may be lost if the design later creates a dangerous condition due to changed physical conditions on the property, such as alterations in speed, traffic or accident frequency. Any claim alleging a dangerous condition of public property should be forwarded immediately to legal counsel for review.

    Summary Analysis: In Dammann v. Golden Gate Bridge, plaintiffs sued the bridge owners for personal injuries sustained in a car accident on the bridge. The trial court ruled in favor of the owners based on the affirmative defense of design immunity. Plaintiffs argued that the existence and implementation of additional safety measures, specifically median barriers, on other bridges constituted “changed physical conditions” sufficient to defeat design immunity. The appellate court agreed with the trial court, finding that plaintiffs failed to show that the original design of the Golden Gate Bridge had become dangerous due to changed physical conditions on the bridge itself. To defeat immunity, changes had to exist on the public property in question. Because the Golden Gate Bridge was the property at issue, safety improvements to bridges in San Diego and New Zealand were irrelevant and did not constitute the changed physical conditions required to defeat design immunity under Government Code section 830.