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Bonanno v CCCTA -- California Supreme Court

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The existence of a dangerous condition is ordinarily a question of fact-resolved here by the jury's express finding that the bus stop was a dangerous condition of CCCTA's property-but it can be decided as a matter of law if reasonable minds can come to only one conclusion. (Zelig v. County of Los Angeles (2002) 27 Cal.4th 1112, 1133.) The statutory language neither precludes nor expressly endorses plaintiff's theory that the bus stop was dangerous because accessing it required crossing a dangerous intersection. The Law Revision Commission comment, however, does endorse that theory: the DeNormandie bus stop may properly be considered dangerous under section 830 in that, in the words of the Law Revision Commission, "a condition on the adjacent property [the crosswalk at an uncontrolled intersection] exposes those using the public property [the bus stop] to a substantial risk of injury." (Cal. Law Revision Com. com., reprinted at 32 West's Ann. Gov. Code, supra, foll. § 830, p. 299.) Because the official comments of the California Law Revision Commission "are declarative of the intent not only of the draftsman of the code but also of the legislators who subsequently enacted it" (People v. Williams (1976) 16 Cal.3d 663, 667-668), the comments are persuasive, albeit not conclusive, evidence of that intent (Conservatorship of Wendland (2001) 26 Cal.4th 519, 542). We must determine, therefore, whether some indication of legislative intent beyond the statutory language and Law Revision Commission comment, or some other principle established in the California cases, negates the jury's finding as a matter of law. After examining the relevant case law, we find no such contrary principle of law.

Most obviously, a dangerous condition exists when public property is physically damaged, deteriorated, or defective in such a way as to foreseeably endanger those using the property itself. (2 Van Alstyne et al., Cal. Government Tort Liability Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 4th ed. 1999 & 2002 supp.) Dangerous Condition of Public Property, § 12.17, pp. 768-769; see, e.g., Mathews v. State of California ex rel. Dept. of Transportation (1978) 82 Cal.App.3d 116, 120 [street intersection with malfunctioning traffic signals]; De La Rosa v. City of San Bernardino (1971) 16 Cal.App.3d 739, 745-746 [stop sign obscured by roadside plantings].) But public property has also been considered to be in a dangerous condition "because of the design or location of the improvement, the interrelationship of its structural or natural features, or the presence of latent hazards associated with its normal use." (Van Alstyne, supra, § 12.18, p. 769, italics added.)

That the location of a public improvement or, more broadly, its relationship to its surroundings, may create dangers to users is by no means a novel idea. In Warden v. City of Los Angeles, supra, 13 Cal.3d 297, the public property at issue was a sewage outfall pipe in Santa Monica Bay. Though, as far as our decision reveals, the pipe was not damaged, deteriorated or defective in any way, this court agreed its location, near the water's surface in an area frequented by ships, constituted a dangerous condition: "Indeed the record is clear that the city placed the pipe near the surface although it could have submerged it for safety purposes, as was done with other installations. This created the dangerous condition which invokes liability under section 835, subdivision (a)." (Id. at p. 300.)