Recently, the California Court of Appeal analyzed the protection that public entities are afforded when there are incidents involving natural conditions on unimproved properties. In endorsing the “natural condition” immunity, the court emphasized the important policy considerations at play to allow increased public access (especially to recreational areas) with reduced exposure to liability in defending claims.
In Alana M. v. State of California, 245 Cal. App. 4th 1482 (2016), Alana, a three year old girl, and her family were camping in a state park when a large tree fell on their tent. Tragically, the tree hit the girl’s head, causing traumatic brain injury.
Alana, through her guardian ad litem, sued the State of California, asserting causes of action for premises liability and dangerous condition on public property. She alleged that there were visible signs that the tree was in a state of decay and was unsafe. Further, she contended that the State should have warned visitors of any dangerous trees.
The State successfully argued that it was immune under Cal. Gov’t Code §831.2, which provides public entities with immunity for injuries that are caused by natural conditions on unimproved public property (e.g., lakes, beaches, etc.). Alana attempted to argue, albeit unsuccessfully, that there was a question of whether the tree was on improved or unimproved public property since the tree was located near a designated campsite with picnic tables and other amenities. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal focused on Alana’s contention that the property should not be considered “unimproved.”
However, the Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court’s decision. The Court of Appeal’s opinion was not swayed by the fact that the tree fell onto the family’s tent located at the campsite. The court determined that the primary concern is “the character (improved or unimproved) of the property at the location of the natural condition, not at the location of the injury.” Unconvinced that there was any evidence of physical change in the condition of the property where the tree grew (or conduct contributing to the danger of the tree), the Court of Appeal found in favor of the State. The Court held that the tree was a “natural condition” that was located on “unimproved public property.”
The court’s decision lends further credibility to the “natural condition on unimproved property immunity” for public entities providing public access to recreational venues. However, public entities should nevertheless remain cautious of the proximity of improvements made to property with natural conditions in the same general vicinity.
Generally, amenities in public areas that transform the underlying property’s “unimproved” status will not undo the “unimproved” status of the neighboring areas (assuming they have not been improved themselves). Those unimproved areas, despite their proximity to improved areas, will usually continue to enjoy the “natural condition” immunity. As such, public entities can continue to provide public parks and other venues that provide a source of recreational activity in their natural condition to the public at large with reduced risk of liability.