Recently, the Supreme Court of California provided a strong affirmation and endorsement of the design immunity defense and the discretionary approval provided by a qualified employee to a reasonable design, so that their decision making is not open to interpretation and second-guessing by the jury.
In Hampton v. County of San Diego, 62 Cal. 4th 340 (2015), a husband and wife were injured in a car accident and filed a lawsuit against the other driver involved in the accident, as well as the County, alleging dangerous condition of public property. Although the County argued that it was protected by the design immunity defense, the plaintiffs argued that design immunity was inapplicable since the design and construction of the intersection where the accident occurred afforded inadequate visibility and failed to meet its own applicable County design standards.
After the trial court ruled in favor of the County, the Court of Appeal affirmed the ruling, stating: “[A] licensed civil and traffic engineer employed by the County approved the Plans prior to construction, that this engineer had the discretionary authority to approve the Plans, and that another licensed engineer employed by the County approved and signed the ‘as built’ plans after construction of the improvements, the County demonstrated the discretionary approval element of its design immunity defense as a matter of law.”
Although a public entity may be liable for a dangerous condition of public property, the affirmative defense of design immunity under Cal. Gov’t Code §830.6 may shield the public entity if it can establish the following: (1) a causal relationship between the plan or design and the accident; (2) discretionary approval of the plan or design prior to construction; and (3) substantial evidence supporting the reasonableness of the plan or design. If a public entity is successful in proving the foregoing three elements, then it will not be held liable for injuries caused by dangerous conditions of public property.
Here, the court evaluated the second element of discretionary approval and determined that a public entity has immunity even when an employee who approves the plan was unaware of the particular design standards. In other words, a public entity is not required to demonstrate that the public employee considered applicable standards when approving a design or was otherwise authorized to deviate for any potentially relevant standards. The essential finding is that the employee who approved the plan or design actually had the authority to do so.
The court concluded that the discretionary approval element of design immunity under Cal. Gov’t Code §830.6 does not require that a public entity necessarily show that an employee approving a public design or plan followed, or was even aware of, applicable design standards. However, such an inquiry is still relevant in deciding whether or not the plan or design was reasonable under the third element (reasonableness). As such, it remains important that public entities remain attentive to considering applicable standards, as well as any other requirements, when implementing new plans or designs.
Nevertheless, the court’s decision does seem to set a fairly high bar for claims alleging dangerous conditions on public property. Again, the key requirement for the issues discussed herein will be that there is substantial evidence supporting a reasonable public employee’s approval of a plan or design. The design immunity defense can provide significant protection to public entities that maintain records and documentation that demonstrate “substantial evidence” supporting such approvals.