Trail Immunity Does Not Shield from Liability Simply Because an Injury Occurs on a Trail
Appellate Court Ruling Means Less Protections for California Public Agencies
A tree branch fell off of a eucalyptus tree and struck a woman while she was walking through Mission Bay Park in San Diego. She filed suit against the City of San Diego, alleging the City negligently maintained the eucalyptus tree, creating a dangerous condition of public property. The City asserted it was immune from liability because the injury occurred while the plaintiff was on a trail. Last month, the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected the City’s argument in Toeppe v. City of San Diego, further narrowing the scope of trail immunity. The ruling means less protections for public agencies that open their land for public recreational purposes, particularly where the potentially dangerous conditions are not naturally occurring.
Under Government Code section 831.4, better known as “trail immunity,” public entities are generally immune from liability for injuries caused by a condition of a trail used for recreational purposes. The purpose of trail immunity is to encourage public entities to allow their property to be used for such purposes.
In the trial court, the City argued trail immunity applied because the plaintiff was on a trail when she was struck by the tree branch. The trial court agreed with the City and entered judgment in its favor, finding the immunity should apply to the tree and its condition because of the location of the tree to the trail. Following the denial of her motion for new trial, the plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the plaintiff asserted her claim was not based on a condition of the trail, but on the negligently maintained eucalyptus tree. She alleged the City managed and maintained both Mission Bay Park and the trees within it, and that for nearly 10 years, a City employee negligently trimmed the subject eucalyptus tree’s branches. She argued the City created, and was aware of, the tree’s dangerous condition and was therefore liable for the resulting harm. She further maintained there was a dispute as to whether she was on the trail when she was struck by the branch. The City countered that the dangerous condition at issue was connected to the trail the plaintiff was on when she was struck by the branch, making the immunity applicable.
The appellate court upheld the plaintiff’s position, finding her claim did not give rise to trail immunity. In doing so, the court distinguished the trail immunity cases cited by the City, including Amberger-Warren v. City of Piedmont decided in 2006 and Leyva v. Crockett & Co., Inc. from earlier this year. The court noted that in this case, the dangerous condition was not a natural condition of the park and was entirely independent of the trail. There are many eucalyptus trees throughout the park and the trail does not provide the only access to those trees. The court explained that the plaintiff did not have to use the trail to find herself near the dangerous condition; she could have walked across the grass or sat at one of the picnic tables in the park. The court found the dangerous condition did not involve the trail at all, but rather a eucalyptus tree planted by the City with a base 25 feet from the edge of the trail. The court clarified that if the tree was negligently maintained, it was a dangerous condition regardless of the location of the subject trail, further narrowing the seemingly broad scope of trail immunity.
If you have any questions about how this opinion may impact your public agency, please contact the author of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the Special Districts practice group or your BB&K attorney.
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