Wednesday, July 26, 2017

County of San Mateo v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - July 25, 2017)

Depressing opinion.  Concise holding:

"A 72-foot diseased tree fell on a sleeping child’s tent pitched in a campground that is located within a vast public wilderness park. The park’s owner, the County of San Mateo, contends it is immune as a matter of law for this allegedly dangerous condition of its property under Government Code section 831.2, commonly referred to as the “natural condition immunity.” It states: “Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for an injury caused by a natural condition of any unimproved public property, including but not limited to any natural condition of any lake, stream, bay, river or beach.”1 (See § 831.2.)

The trial court denied the County’s motion for summary judgment under section 831.2, and we now deny the County’s petition for a writ of mandate seeking to overturn the summary judgment ruling. We conclude there are triable issues of fact as to whether the property here was “unimproved.” . . .

On July 25, 2012, Zachary Rowe and his family were camping in San Mateo County Memorial Park, where they occupied campsite D-1 of Sequoia Flat Campground. Twenty feet from Zachary’s tent stood a 72-foot, diseased tanoak tree suffering from a species of fungus called Armillaria that caused it to fail. In the early morning hours, while Zachary was sleeping, the massive tree fell on Zachary’s tent, crushing him and inflicting catastrophic injuries. .  . .

San Mateo County Memorial Park is property owned by San Mateo County, consisting of approximately 499 wooded acres, with trails. Its campsites are located in a heavily wooded campground area, portions of which were cleared of trees. The campground area contains dozens of campsites as well as amenities such as paved roads, telephones, restrooms (with electricity, sinks and flush toilets), showers, dedicated parking areas, a dumping station and a store. . . .

A professional land surveyor determined there were 34 man-made improvements within 126 feet of where the tree stood, including roadways, bumper logs (which are large trees laid on the ground to keep cars out of camping areas), restrooms, picnic tables, bear boxes, fire pits/barbeque pits, road signs, conductor poles with transformers and a parking bollard. According to the survey map he prepared, which is reproduced as Figure 2 in the appendix to this opinion, the man-made objects closest to the tree were a picnic table and a fire pit in a neighboring campsite, both some 13 feet away from the tree. The map depicts many man-made objects within the tree’s 72-foot striking distance, including a power line within 37 feet at its closest point; two access roads, one of which was 22 feet away at its closest point and the other 61 feet away; and various amenities located in Zachary’s campsite and several neighboring ones. Also close by, but not within the tree’s 72-foot striking distance, were two restrooms, one 113 feet away from the tree, and the other 126 feet away."

Given all this, it's somewhat surprising that the Court of Appeal decided to hear the writ.