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Premises Liability - Injury on Government Owned Property

If you are injured on someone else’s property, you may generally hold the property owner liable for your injuries. But what happens when the property is owned by the government? The rules are a bit more complicated. The premises liability team at Spencer Young Law in Oakland understand the statutes and cases that regulate what steps government entities must take to keep their properties safe. If you were injured on government-owned property, call an experienced Oakland premises liability attorney at Spencer Young Law today for a free consultation on your legal rights and options.

The California Tort Claims Act broadly shields government entities from tort claims. A tort is a common-law claim for damages which Courts recognize based on past legal decisions, rather than published laws. Negligence is one example of a tort claim. Defamation is another. You can’t bring these types of claims against a government entity in the same way you could against a private party.

However, government entities are not shielded from statutory claims. A statutory claim is one recognized by an actual law that was created by elected lawmakers, put into writing, and published in the official collection of statutes. If a specific statute allows you to bring a certain type of claim against a government entity, then you may do so, even if that claim could otherwise be considered a tort.

The California Tort Claims Act is itself a statute, and it creates a few statutory claims that may be brought against government entities. However, the Tort Claims Act is not the only source of potential statutory claims. There may be other, unrelated statutes that create additional statutory claims.

If you are injured on government-owned property, however, the Tort Claims Act itself creates some of the most important and relevant statutory claims.

Dangerous Condition of Public Property

Section 835 of the California Government Code provides that a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if several things can be proven:

  1. The property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, and
  2. The dangerous condition caused the injury, and
  3. The risk of that type of injury was the reasonably foreseeable result of the dangerous condition, and EITHER
    1. The public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition, OR
    2. An employee of the public entity created the dangerous condition by some wrongful or negligent act in the scope of their work.
What are “Actual Notice” and “Constructive Notice”?

A government entity has actual notice of a dangerous condition if it actually knows the condition exists. A government entity has constructive notice of a dangerous condition if it should have reasonably discovered the condition based on the nature of the condition and the length of time it existed.

Example 1: The City of Lafayette owns a city park. One of the swings on the playground is hanging from an old, rusted chain which could break at any moment. A concerned parent has called the Department of Parks and Recreation to report the hazard. A different parent filed an online complaint with the City’s Department of Public Works. The City has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition.

Example 2: The County of Santa Clara owns a public roadway. On a section of the roadway in front of the County Administration Building, a 3-foot wide pothole has developed, putting cars and drivers at particular risk. It has been there for 2 weeks. The size, location, and length of time the pothole has existed have given the County constructive notice of the dangerous condition.

Example 3: The State of California owns a state park where it maintains several trails for hikers and backpackers. An adventurous backpacker goes off the trail into a heavily wooded area where a beaver has just finished gnawing the base of a large sequoia tree. The tree falls onto the backpacker, seriously injuring him. The obscure location of the weakened tree, and the fact that the condition was created just before it caused the injury, likely mean that the State had no actual or constructive notice and would not be liable for the backpacker’s injuries.

Example 4: The City of Oakland sends a crew to trim overgrown city-owned trees. One of the crew members forgets to dispose of the branches that he has trimmed off, and they block part of the bike lane on the road underneath the tree. A bicyclist crashes into the pile of branches and is injured. The dangerous condition was created by the negligence of a City employee acting within the scope of his work. Whether the City had notice of the condition is therefore irrelevant; it may be liable even without notice, based on its employee’s negligence.

Example 5: The County of Sacramento owns an irrigation canal. The County has actual notice that an alligator has taken residence in the canal. The County considers “putting down” the alligator or posting warning signs, but ends up taking no action. The alligator is hungry and tries to eat a seagull, which narrowly escapes after being bitten. The seagull bleeds as it flies away, then dies midair, and crashes into the electrical wires below. The wires break, fall onto a nearby house, and electrocute one of the residents, causing injury. Although the County had notice of the dangerous condition, the actual injury that resulted was not the reasonably foreseeable result of that condition. The County is most likely not liable for the resident’s injury.

If you have been injured by a dangerous condition on public property, you may have the right to hold the government accountable. However, there are special procedures and deadlines that you must follow. Generally, you only have 6 month since the date of your harm to initially present your claim to the government entity, and there are special procedures you must follow in doing so. Don't waste time - consult an Oakland premises liability attorney at Spencer Young Law today for a free consultation!

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