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Does Design Immunity Shield Public Entities from Warning of Roadway Hazards? Insights from Tansavatdi v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes

November 8, 2023 Blog,California Laws,Eric Ganci

By Eric Ganci

Sometimes in the legal system, we have courts that disagree on how to read, understand, and interpret the law. I know, I know: it’s shocking to think lawyers and Judges may somehow find a way to disagree with each other.  

Well, from this April 27, 2023 decision Tansavatdi v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes, cited as 14 Cal.5th 639, the California Supreme Court steps in to decide a split of holdings between our lower California courts whether a design immunity claim (in a case against a public or government agency) can preclude a Plaintiff for seeking a claim when the government has failed to warn of a dangerous condition.  

As the Court says here, “[t]he question presented in this case is whether design immunity bars all forms of claims that seek to impose liability for injuries resulting from a dangerous feature of a roadway. More specifically, we must determine whether design immunity is limited to claims alleging that a public entity created a dangerous roadway condition through a defective design, or whether the statutory immunity also extends to claims alleging that a public entity failed to warn of a design element that resulted in a dangerous roadway condition.”  

This question has been on the burner for a while, since the California Supreme Court decided the 1972 case Cameron v. State of California, cited as 7 Cal.3d 318. In Cameron, the California Supreme Court concluded “design immunity does not categorically preclude failure to warn claims that involve a discretionarily approved element of a roadway.”  

The ultimate decision of this case is this:  

“[W]e find nothing illogical in Cameron’s conclusion that section [California Government Code] 830.6 was not intended to allow government entities to remain silent when they have notice that a reasonably approved design presents a danger to the public.” 

And with that, this Court declines to overrule its precedent in Cameron 

So, what happened in Tansavatdi? 

The City had a roadway in the city of Rancho Palos Verdes. The City created this roadway with a bike lane that started and stopped…to then resume again later in the road.  

Decedent was riding his bicycle in the Subject Road…and then a tractor trailer turned near Decedent The tractor trailer “cut across the right turn lane at a perpendicular angle. The decedent collided with the truck and died from his injuries.” 

“The decedent’s mother…filed a complaint against the City for ‘[d]angerous [c]ondition of [p]ublic [p]roperty pursuant to Government Code section 835.’ The complaint alleged that the intersection of Hawthorn Boulevard and Vallon Drive constituted a dangerous condition that the City had ‘created, or allowed to be created … under [section] 835.’” 

And here’s a main issue in this case: “The complaint further alleged the City had provided ‘inadequate warning of dangerous conditions not reasonably apparent to motorists … for those driving through the [Subject Intersection].’” 

And thus starts the litigation tied into the City claiming “design immunity”: 

“The City filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that it had a ‘complete defense to [the] action for design immunity under Government Code section 830.6.’” 

The Plaintiff disagreed with the City:  

“Citing Cameron, Tansavatdi separately argued that even if the City had demonstrated it was entitled to design immunity, that immunity did not apply to her claim that the City should have ‘warned of the dangerous condition … since it [was] not reasonably apparent to a bicyclist’ and thus ‘create[ed] a concealed trap.’” 

Procedurally, the Trial Court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the City.  

Plaintiff appealed.  

And, “citing Cameron, the appellate court agreed with [Plaintiff] Tansavatdi that ‘design immunity does not, as a matter of law, preclude liability under a theory of failure to warn of a dangerous condition.’” 

Let’s get to the analysis 

California Government Code “section 835 expressly authorizes two different forms of dangerous conditions liability: an act or omission by a government actor that created the dangerous condition (§ 835, subd. (a)); or, alternatively, failure ‘to protect against’ dangerous conditions of which the entity had notice (id., subd. (b)). The term ‘protect against’ is statutorily defined to include, among other things, ‘warning of a dangerous condition.’” 

Can the Government try and claim design immunity for both creating a dangerous condition and for “failure to protect against” this dangerous condition?  

Sure, they can claim this design immunity. But that doesn’t mean it automatically applies. Especially if we’re dealing with a “concealed trap”.  

As the Court explains, California Government Code “Section 830.8…sets forth a limitation to such immunity: ‘Nothing in this section exonerates a public entity … from liability for injury … caused by such failure if a signal, sign, marking or device … was necessary to warn of a dangerous condition which endangered the safe movement of traffic and which would not be reasonably apparent to, and would not have been anticipated by, a person exercising due care.’ This limitation to section 830.8 immunity is commonly referred to as the ‘concealed trap’ exception.” 

Here, the Court addresses three issues specific to Cameron: 

The Court says, “[t]o resolve the legal question presented in this case, we must answer three questions involving Cameron 

First, we must determine whether the Court of Appeal correctly interpreted Cameron as holding that “design immunity for a dangerous condition [does] not necessarily shield the state from liability for a failure to warn of the same dangerous condition.”  

Second, assuming the interpretation was correct, we must address the City’s assertion that Cameron’s analysis regarding failure to warn claims does not constitute binding precedent or has otherwise been impliedly displaced by subsequent events.  

Third, to the extent the Court of Appeal properly interpreted Cameron and the decision is binding precedent, we must decide whether there is an adequate justification to depart from the doctrine of stare decisis and overrule our prior holding. 

 The first issue 

So, first, did the Court of Appeal correctly interpreted Cameron as holding that “design immunity for a dangerous condition [does] not necessarily shield the state from liability for a failure to warn of the same dangerous condition.”  

The Court says yes, the Court of Appeal correctly interpreted Cameron as such.  

This Court says “our decision in Cameron expressly held that if the state were able to establish on remand that the challenged condition at issue in that case (the banking of the “S” turn) was part of the approved highway plans, and thus subject to design immunity, that immunity would not defeat plaintiffs’ alternative claim that the state’s failure to warn drivers of the known danger was an independent, intervening cause of the accident.” 

And with this, this Court disapproves of Weinstein v. Department of Transportation in its specific holding otherwise. The cite for Weinstein is (2006) 139 Cal. App. 4th 52.  

However, “despite the inapplicability of design immunity, a plaintiff alleging failure to warn of a dangerous traffic condition must nonetheless overcome signage immunity by establishing the accident-causing condition was a concealed trap.”  

The second issue: 

The City argues Cameron’s discussion of failure to warn claims is nonbinding dicta or, alternatively, no longer remains good law due to an intervening amendment to Government Code section 830.6. 

The Court here disagrees with the City.  

The third issue: 

The City contends “even if Cameron remains binding precedent, we should overrule the decision and hold that design immunity precludes any claim alleging that a public entity failed to warn of a dangerous roadway condition that was reflected in the approved plans.” 

The Court disagrees with the City.  

In closing: 

Wow, this has been a substantial post. Such that I need to give a closing to sum up the law. But this is an important decision, so it’s important to take this time to walk through everything.  

The Court hits with some big, important statements:  

“[A] government entity cannot simply remain silent when it has notice that a reasonably approved design presents a danger to the public….” And this “closely mirrors how we (and our Legislature) have treated design immunity in the context of changed circumstances.” 

“[While section 830.6 protects a public entity’s initial design decision, the entity nonetheless remains ‘under a continuing duty to review its plan in the light of its actual operation.’” 

Every California Supreme Court Justice concurred in this decision.