Woodland Hills personal injury lawyer Barry P. Goldberg is very careful about which slip and fall/trip and fall cases he accepts. There are many reasons for this caution, not the least of which is that there are many defenses to such actions which must be overcome in order to establish liability. Also, it is important to assess who the defendant will be and whether the plaintiff is more sympathetic than the defendant. The thought of suing the Court where many of the cases you file are heard would fall to the bottom of the target defendant list for this office. If anything, the LA Superior Court in Van Nuys is Mr. Goldberg’s “home court.”
In a recent unreported decision, the plaintiff undertook a bold move and sued the LA Superior Court for a fall that occurred at the Van Nuys Court House. She alleged that she tripped over a crack in the floor of the courthouse lobby and sued the County of Los Angeles for her injuries. The County thought it had an “I got you” defense, shortly before the fall, the County transferred ownership of the Courthouse to the State of California. The County brought a Motion for Summary Judgment and contended that it did not control the lobby floor because the joint use agreement placed responsibility for maintaining and repairing the floor on the state. The trial court agreed and granted the County’s motion.
The Court of Appeal reversed, finding that the County had not established that it did not have sufficient control to remedy the crack to satisfy the initial burden for a summary judgment. Of course, the irony is that pointing out this somewhat procedural flaw is exactly the types of rulings that the Superior Court judges hand down with some regularity in that court house.
In California, a public entity is liable for an injury only as provided by statute. (§ 815.) “In other words, direct tort liability of public entities must be based on a specific statute declaring them to be liable, or at least creating some specific duty of care, and not on the general tort provisions of Civil Code section 1714.” (Eastburn v. Regional Fire Protection Authority (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1175, 1183.)
Government Code Section 835 makes a public entity liable for an injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property. Section 830, subdivision (c) defines “‘[p]roperty of a public entity’” and “‘public property’” as real or personal property “owned or controlled by the public entity.” Because this definition is “disjunctive rather than conjunctive,” a public entity is liable if it either owned or controlled the property that caused the injury. (Huffman v. City of Poway (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 975, 989-990) “[C]ontrol exists if the public entity has the ‘power to prevent, remedy or guard against the dangerous condition.’ [Citation].” (Id. at p. 990; see Public Utilities Com. v. Superior Court (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 364, 375-376 (PUC) [Although Public Utilities Commission had authority to regulate railroad crossing and order others to correct dangerous condition, it lacked control over crossing because it had no authority to correct dangerous condition itself].)
In the summary judgment motion, the County contended the joint use agreement showed it lacked control over the lobby floor where Plaintiff fell because the Agreement placed responsibility for maintaining and repairing the floor on the Judicial Council. The Court of Appeal disagreed with the County’s interpretation of the Agreement because the plain language assigned responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the entire Common Area to the County. As the Court of Appeal emphasized, a party’s ability to repair a dangerous condition establishes control over the property for purposes of sections 830 and 835. (See Huffman, supra, 84 Cal.App.4th at p. 990; PUC, supra, 181 Cal.App.4th at pp. 375-376.) Accordingly, the Court concluded the Joint Occupancy Agreement did not satisfy the County’s initial burden to show Plaintiff could not establish the essential element of control, and therefore the trial court erred in granting the motion.
The LA County Superior Court probably has a new appreciation for the difficult standard to obtain a summary judgment. It is one thing to make rulings that affect litigants, it is quite another thing to have to live by the summary judgment standard the Court created for itself!