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Bonanno v CCCTA -- California Supreme Court

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Filed 4/7/03


DARLENE BONANNO, an Incompetent
Person, etc.,

        Plaintiff and Respondent,



        Defendant and Appellant;

DIANA BONTÁ, as Director, etc.,

        Claimant and Respondent.

DARLENE BONANNO, an Incompetent
Person, etc.,

        Plaintiff and Appellant,


        Defendant and Respondent;

DIANA BONTÁ, as Director, etc.,

        Claimant and Respondent.



Ct.App. 1/4 A087486

Contra Costa County
Super. Ct. No. C94-00510





Ct.App. 1/4 A088589

Contra Costa County
Super. Ct. No. C94-00510

The question presented is whether the location of a bus stop may constitute a "dangerous condition" of public property, within the meaning of Government Code sections 830 and 835 1 , where, in order to reach the stop, bus patrons must cross a busy thoroughfare at an uncontrolled intersection. Assuming all other elements of an action under section 835 are proven, we conclude it may; no rule of law precludes imposition of liability on this basis. We therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which affirmed a judgment on jury verdict for plaintiff Darlene Bonanno, who was injured while attempting to cross an arterial street to reach a bus stop maintained by defendant Central Contra Costa Transit Authority (CCCTA).


The facts are drawn in large part from the opinion of the Court of Appeal.
CCCTA began providing bus services to Contra Costa County (County) residents in 1982, taking over routes from the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit). At that time, a bus stop (consisting simply of a route sign placed in compacted gravel) was located on the north side of Pacheco Boulevard (Pacheco) near the intersection of Pacheco and DeNormandie Way (DeNormandie), in an unincorporated area of the County near the City of Martinez. In the early 1980's, residents in the neighborhood of that intersection made it known to County officials that they were having difficulty crossing Pacheco to get to and from the bus stop; in response, the County painted a crosswalk at the intersection. Other than bus patrons, few pedestrians used the crosswalk.

Despite the crosswalk, pedestrians still had difficulty finding adequate gaps in traffic during the morning commute. Morning commute traffic on Pacheco was heavy, drivers were relatively inattentive, and the speed limit was often disregarded. In February 1986, Kimberly Chittock was struck by a car while crossing Pacheco midblock to get to the DeNormandie bus stop. The Chittock family filed a claim against CCCTA complaining about the location of the DeNormandie bus stop; CCCTA denied the claim. In the ensuing lawsuit, CCCTA took a deposition in which the Chittocks' traffic expert testified it was unsafe for pedestrians to cross Pacheco at DeNormandie and the bus stop should have been moved one block west to the intersection at Morello Avenue (Morello), which (although it had a stop sign) should have been controlled with traffic signals.
One year after Chittock's accident, early in 1987, 15 students complained to CCCTA that it was too dangerous to cross Pacheco at Morello to get to the DeNormandie bus stop. In July 1987, the County installed traffic signal lights, equipped with pedestrian push buttons, at the Pacheco and Morello intersection. CCCTA did not, however, move its bus stop from DeNormandie to Morello.

Although pedestrians could now cross Pacheco safely at Morello, the route to the DeNormandie bus stop along the north shoulder of Pacheco was unnecessarily hazardous. The shoulder was relatively narrow, and the gravel and dirt adjacent to the paved portion could be muddy. Additionally, the area was often occupied by large parked trucks, and in one portion the drainage swale had eroded to within five and a half feet of the edge line. In another area of the north shoulder, pedestrians had to walk in the roadway for several feet. Plaintiff's traffic engineering expert opined that pedestrians trying to get to the DeNormandie bus stop during the morning commute faced unnecessary hazards wherever they crossed, because of the unsafe conditions on the north shoulder of Pacheco and the difficulty of finding safe gaps in traffic to cross Pacheco without a signal. As a matter of bus patron safety, the DeNormandie bus stop should have been moved one block west to Morello.

Plaintiff Bonanno lives with members of her family on Robinsdale Road, south of Pacheco. At the time of the accident, she relied on public transportation, including a CCCTA bus she took to her job cleaning rooms at the Motel 6 in Walnut Creek. On November 16, 1993, around 7:00 a.m., walking to the bus stop at DeNormandie, Bonanno attempted to cross Pacheco at the DeNormandie intersection. She waited on the curb for some minutes for a break in traffic, but a car passed every few seconds. Finally, eastbound motorist Jennifer Kimberly stopped at the crosswalk to let Bonanno cross. After further waiting, a westbound motorist stopped as well.
Jeremy McLain was driving eastbound on Pacheco on his way to work. He was having difficulty seeing out of his frost-covered windshield with the bright morning sun ahead. As Bonanno stepped out into the crosswalk and walked in front of Kimberly's car, McLain rear-ended Kimberly's car (which he had not seen), causing it to lurch forward and hit Bonanno, who was seriously injured.

Because the County owns the right-of-way along Pacheco, CCCTA had to obtain the County's permission to move a bus stop or install a new stop. Before plaintiff's accident, CCCTA had never requested addition of a stop at Morello. After the accident, CCCTA's representative met with the County's traffic engineer and requested a stop be added at Morello. The engineer and the County Board of Supervisors approved the request, and the stop was added.

Bonanno sued CCCTA, the County, McLain, and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and related entities, where she had been treated after the accident. Eventually, all defendants except CCCTA settled, and in 1999 Bonanno tried her case against CCCTA alone. The jury returned its verdict in her favor, expressly finding that the bus stop was a dangerous condition of public property. The jury found McLain 88 percent responsible, Kaiser Hospital 10 percent responsible, and the County and CCCTA each 1 percent responsible. The trial court entered judgment for Bonanno and against CCCTA, on Bonanno's cause of action for a dangerous condition of public property, in the amounts of $1,591,130 in economic damages (reflecting credits for prior settlements) and $15,000 in noneconomic damages (1 percent of the total noneconomic damage award).
The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the location of the DeNormandie stop created a dangerous condition in that it "beckoned pedestrian bus patrons to cross, and compelled cars to stop, at the feeder crosswalk without attendant traffic lights or pedestrian-activated signals." We granted review on CCCTA's petition, limiting review to the question "whether the location of a bus stop may constitute a dangerous condition of public property under Government Code section 830 because bus patrons will be enticed to cross a dangerous crosswalk to reach the bus stop."


Under section 835, a public entity such as CCCTA is "liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and [that]: [] . . . [] (b) [t]he public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition under Section 835.2 a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition." At this stage of the proceedings, the only element at issue is the existence of a dangerous condition of the property.

Our decision here, we emphasize, does not concern the question whether the crosswalk at DeNormandie was in fact an unsafe pedestrian route for crossing Pacheco, or even the broader question whether painted crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections are more dangerous than those at signal-controlled intersections. As the County, which controlled the intersection, settled with plaintiff before trial, our decision does not in any respect address the liability of a city or county for maintenance of an unsafe crosswalk. To be sure, plaintiff introduced evidence-which the jury apparently found persuasive-showing the DeNormandie crossing was more dangerous than that at Morello, in order to establish that CCCTA should have moved its bus stop to Morello. But the sufficiency of that evidence is not before this court. Our order limiting review, quoted earlier in this opinion, assumes the existence of a dangerous crosswalk, posing only the question whether a bus stop may be deemed dangerous because bus users, to reach the stop, must cross at that dangerous crosswalk.

Nor are we primarily concerned here with the sufficiency of evidence to show that CCCTA controlled the location of its bus stop, although part of the plaintiff's burden in an action under section 835 is, of course, to show that the public entity owned or controlled the property subject to the dangerous condition. (See § 830, subd. (c).) CCCTA devotes only one paragraph of its briefing to this issue, noting that the process of installing a bus stop on County property involves consultation between CCCTA and the County, with the County enjoying a veto power over any proposal for a new stop on its property. But that CCCTA needed the County's permission to place a stop at Morello does not preclude, as a matter of law, CCCTA's potential liability for risks arising from the stop's location, as the record contains no evidence CCCTA had asked for such permission and been refused, or had any reason to assume permission would be denied. (See Warden v. City of Los Angeles (1975) 13 Cal.3d 297, 300-301 [city, which never applied to Coast Guard for more effective warning buoys on sewer outfall pipe, could not avoid liability for pipe's latent danger on the ground the Coast Guard controlled aids to navigation]; Shea v. City of San Bernardino (1936) 7 Cal.2d 688, 692-693 [city had duty to request that railroad commission correct a defective grade crossing on city street].) In fact, when, after plaintiff's accident, CCCTA asked that a bus stop be added at Morello, the County approved the request. 2

A "dangerous condition," as defined in section 830, is "a condition of property that creates a substantial . . . risk of injury when such property or adjacent property is used with due care" in a "reasonably foreseeable" manner. (§ 830, subd. (a).) A California Law Revision Commission comment accompanying the statute's 1963 enactment expands on the relationship between public property and adjacent property with regard to dangerous conditions: " 'Adjacent property' as used in the definition of 'dangerous condition' refers to the area that is exposed to the risk created by a dangerous condition of the public property. . . . [] . . . A public entity may be liable only for dangerous conditions of its own property. But its own property may be considered dangerous if it creates a substantial risk of injury to adjacent property or to persons on adjacent property; and its own property may be considered dangerous if a condition on the adjacent property exposes those using the public property to a substantial risk of injury." (Cal. Law Revision Com. com., reprinted at 32 West's Ann. Gov. Code (1995 ed.) foll. § 830, p. 299.)

1 - All further statutory references are to the Government Code unless otherwise specified.        [ back ]

2 - In any event, CCCTA enjoyed sufficient sole control over the bus stop to remove it if it was unnecessarily dangerous.



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