By William E. Adams.

The most common statutory defense available to a California public entity in a road design case is Government Code § 830.6, which provides a public entity immunity against claims arising out of design defects.  The April 2014 decision by the Second District of the California Court of Appeal, however, highlights the need for public entities to conduct due diligence before asserting this defense.

In Martinez v. County of Ventura, Case No. B24476, Plaintiff sued Ventura County after sustaining paraplegic injuries when his motorcycle hit an asphalt berm abutting a raised drain (a top-hat drain system).  Plaintiff alleged that the top-hat drain system—which consisted of a heavy steel cover on three legs elevated several inches off the ground with a sloped asphalt berm to channel water into the drain—constituted a dangerous condition of public property. California Government Code § 835 (b) states that “a public entity is liable for injuries proximately caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the dangerous condition created a foreseeable risk of the kind of injury sustained, and the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the condition a sufficient time before the injury in order to have taken preventive measures.” At trial, although the County did not enter any engineering design plans for the top-hat drain system into evidence, it raised the design immunity defense.

The rationale for enacting 830.6 was to prevent a jury from second-guessing design decisions made by a public entity by having the jury review identical questions previously considered by government officials.  Because design immunity is an affirmative defense that an entity must plead and prove, three elements need to be established: (1) the entity’s discretionary approval of plan or design prior to construction (2) a causal relationship between the plan or design and accident, and (3) substantial evidence supporting the reasonableness of the design.  In Martinez, the Court of Appeal focused on the first element regarding discretionary approval.  The Plaintiff contended that there was no evidence the County exercised its discretion in approving the design plans when the system was installed in 1900; the court agreed, noting that the design must be “sufficiently explicit to assure that it is understandable to the employee giving the approval.” Plaintiff further claimed that there was no one in a position of authority to approve the design in advance of the construction.

The County rebutted these arguments, proffering that—even in the absence of the discretionary approval per 830.6—the top-hat drain system was a maintenance project where no formal plans were necessary.  Defendants also contended that discretionary approval of the system could be implied by the extensive evidence of consistent use over a 25-year period.

The Court of Appeal rejected these arguments, stating that giving credence to these “implied” theories would diminish the requirements of the design immunity defense, and provide public entities a broad-sweeping, blanket release from liability.  Thus, the Court of Appeal ultimately held that there was no design immunity, and the jury’s finding of a dangerous condition is binding on retrial.

Martinez highlights the need for public entities to be able to prove the three aforementioned criteria when asserting a design immunity defense.  Accordingly, it is imperative that cities and counties document and keep on file all design plans and approval, regardless of how frequently a particular design is used.  Failure to document exposes the public entity to the possibility that it could lose its statutory design immunity protection, and face liability when dangerous conditions are proven.