Legal Alerts May 18, 2017

Trail Immunity for Public Agencies Stops At the Edge of Adjacent Public Golf Course

Appellate Court Says Pasadena Can be Liable for Child’s Injury

Trail Immunity for Public Agencies Stops At the Edge of Adjacent Public Golf Course

A young child traveling in a stroller on a walkway that was part of the City of Pasadena's Rose Bowl Loop, located next to a golf course, was struck in the head by a stray golf ball and sustained a brain injury. The child’s mother sued the City (which owns the golf course) and the private entity that managed and operated the golf course.
The City asserted that “trail immunity” applied, shielding it from liability for the injury. But, earlier this month, the Second District Court of Appeal rejected that argument. The case, Jacobo Garcia v. American Golf Corporation, is a reminder for public agencies to review their indemnification agreements for any management or operation arrangements they may have with private entities and to err on the side of caution when considering, installing and maintaining safety features.
The City argued to the trial court that there was no dangerous condition for the walkway and that it should be entitled to trail immunity. Generally, public entities are immune from liability arising from an injury caused by a condition of a trail used for recreational purposes. As an aside, trail immunity for public entities differs from protections afforded to private property owners that make their land available for recreational purposes. The primary protection for private property owners is a reduced duty of care – by not requiring private property owners to exercise reasonable care to those who enter their property, private property owners are not required to keep the land safe or warn of hazards on the land.
The plaintiffs countered that the dangerous condition was not the location of the walkway (proximity to the golf course), but the inadequacy of the seven-foot high fences around the golf course and other steps taken to guard against stray golf balls.
The trial court agreed with the City and dismissed it from the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs appealed. The issue on appeal was whether the injury was caused by a dangerous condition of the walkway for purposes of trail immunity.
Siding with the plaintiffs, the appellate court pointed to the text of the trail immunity, stating that, while the City could be protected from injuries caused by the walkway, the immunity did not extend to dangerous conditions caused by an adjacent public property.
In reaching its conclusion, the appellate court had to distinguish the case from a number of contradictory cases, including Leyva v. Crocket & Co., Inc., a case decided in January of this year. The Leyva court evaluated strikingly similar facts — a pedestrian traveling along a public path adjacent to a golf club suffered an injury caused by a stray golf ball.
The Garcia opinion is largely policy-driven. The appellate court repeatedly referenced fairness and disincentives for immunizing the City. In particular, the court deemed it fair to deny the City immunity for a dangerous condition on the golf course that increases the risk of harm by third party conduct. The court also opined that cloaking the City with immunity would disincentivize it from correcting the dangerous condition.
The distinction between the appellate court’s opinions in Garcia and Leyva rests on a thin reed, but for now, the Garcia opinion is the precedent.
If you have any questions about this opinion or how it may impact your agency, please contact one of the authors of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.
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