MillIGAn v. City of Laguna Beach

Decision Date31 October 1983
Citation670 P.2d 1121,196 Cal.Rptr. 38,34 Cal.3d 829
Parties, 670 P.2d 1121 Benella MILLIGAN et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. CITY OF LAGUNA BEACH, Defendant and Respondent. L.A. 31611.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Layman, Jones & Dye, Newport Beach, Stanley R. Jones, Frederick B. Sainick, Anne E. Klokow and Hufstedler, Miller, Carlson & Beardsley, Los Angeles, for plaintiffs and appellants.

Kinkle, Rodiger & Spriggs and A.J. Pyka, Santa Ana, for defendant and respondent.

George Deukmejian, Atty. Gen., N. Gregory Taylor, Asst. Atty. Gen., Peter H. Kaufman and Jamee J. Jordan, Deputy Attys. Gen., John W. Witt, City Atty., San Diego, Ronald L. Johnson, Chief Deputy City Atty., and John W. Wood, Deputy City Atty., as amici curiae on behalf of defendant and respondent.


In a bifurcated trial based on stipulated facts, the trial court concluded that Government Code section 831.2, which immunizes public entities for injuries caused by natural conditions of unimproved public property, precluded recovery of damages from the City of Laguna Beach. 1 Plaintiffs appeal the ensuing judgment.

We have determined that the immunity is applicable only to users of the governmental property and is inapplicable to injuries caused to nonusers on adjacent property, as occurred here. Accordingly we reverse the judgment.

During a storm, several eucalyptus trees growing on the city's property fell causing injury to plaintiffs' residence which was on adjacent property. Plaintiffs commenced this action for damages to their home and for emotional distress. They alleged that the city had maintained the tree in a dangerous condition. (§ 835.) The city among other defenses claimed that it was immune from liability under section 831.2, and the trial court tried the immunity issue first.

Section 831.2 is part of the Tort Claims Act of 1963 (§§ 810-996.6), which established governmental liability and immunity for tortious acts. The section provides: "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."

When questions as to the applicability or interpretation of statutes are presented to this court, numerous cases have recognized that the controlling issue is the intent of the Legislature. (E.g., Valley Circle Estates v. VTN Consolidated, Inc. (1983) 33 Cal.3d 604, 609, 189 Cal.Rptr. 871, 659 P.2d 1160; Cossack v. City of Los Angeles (1974) 11 Cal.3d 726, 732, 114 Cal.Rptr. 460, 523 P.2d 260; People v. Superior Court (1969) 70 Cal.2d 123, 132, 74 Cal.Rptr. 294, 449 P.2d 230.) To ascertain the legislative intent, courts have resorted to many rules of construction. However, when the Legislature has stated the purpose of its enactment in unmistakable terms, we must apply the enactment in accordance with the legislative direction, and all other rules of construction must fall by the wayside. Speculation and reasoning as to legislative purpose must give way to expressed legislative purpose.

In connection with the enactment of the Tort Claims Act, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Assembly Committee on Ways and Means (2 Sen.J. (1963 Reg.Sess.) p. 1885; 3 Assem.J. (1963 Reg.Sess.) p. 5439) formally adopted comments explaining the purpose and effect of the provisions to be enacted. In Baldwin v. State of California (1972) 6 Cal.3d 424, 433, 99 Cal.Rptr. 145, 491 P.2d 1121 et seq., this court held that the committees' explanation determined the applicability of the design immunity established by section 830.6.

As in Baldwin, we must determine the applicability of an immunity section which does not expressly deal with the situation before the court. Section 830.6 providing for design immunity did not contain any language indicating that the immunity could terminate on the basis of changed conditions, just as section 831.2 does not contain any language expressly determining whether the natural condition immunity applies to injuries to nonusers on adjacent property. The committees' reports on section 831.2, like those in Baldwin, were joint reports made to explain to the legislators the meaning and purposes of the provisions of the natural condition immunity. In Baldwin we held the measure of the immunity was determined by the committees' comment and that design immunity was not applicable where there were changed conditions after approval of the design. Following Baldwin, we apply the natural condition immunity in accordance with the expressed purpose and refuse to apply it when application would not further the expressed purpose. 2

The legislative committees' comment to section 831.2 provides: "This section provides an absolute immunity from liability for injuries resulting from a natural condition of any unimproved public property. Thus, for example, under this section and Section 831.4, the State has an absolute immunity from liability for injuries resulting from natural conditions of a state park area where the only improvements are recreational access roads (as defined in Section 831.4) and hiking, riding, fishing and hunting trials.

"This section and Section 831.4 continue and extend an existing policy adopted by the Legislature in former Government Code Section 54002. It is desirable to permit the members of the public to use public property in its natural condition and to provide trails for hikers and riders and roads for campers into the primitive regions of the State. But the burden and expense of putting such property in safe condition and the expense of defending claims for injuries would probably cause many public entities to close such areas to public use. In view of the limited funds available for the acquisition and improvement of property for recreational purposes, it is not unreasonable to expect persons who voluntarily use unimproved public property in its natural condition to assume the risk of injuries arising therefrom as a part of the price to be paid for benefits received." 3

The legislative policy underlying the immunity is clear. It is desirable to permit public use of governmental property but governmental agencies might prohibit such use if they were put to the expense of making the property safe, responding to tort actions, and paying damages. The comment concludes by pointing out the shortage of funds for improving property for recreational use and the fairness of requiring users to assume the risk of injury. The comment did not state that in the absence of the immunity the costs to public agencies would be prohibitive. The statement as to cost is limited to the perception that cost might cause agencies to close their property to the public.

It is apparent that the policy has nothing to do with an injury sustained by an adjacent landowner from a tree on government land. The governmental agency may not preclude landowners from using their land, and immunity is not necessary to assure that landowners are permitted to use their land. Moreover, nonusers of the government land do not receive the reciprocal benefit of use, and the principal of fairness has no application. Since the policy on which the immunity is based is not applicable to injuries occurring to nonusers on adjacent land, the immunity should not be applicable.

The natural condition immunity was applied in accordance with the express legislative declaration in Osgood v. County of Shasta (1975) 50 Cal.App.3d 586, 589-590, 123 Cal.Rptr. 442. In that case a water skier was killed on Lake Shasta, and recovery was sought on the ground that the configuration of the lake, its coves and inlets impairing visibility, constituted a hazardous condition when used with due care by boaters and water skiers. Although the lake is an artificial one, it was held that the condition complained of was a natural condition common to most if not all lakes and that the natural condition immunity was applicable. (50 Cal.App.3d at p. 590, 123 Cal.Rptr. 442.) Obviously, if the immunity was held inapplicable, the legislative purpose underlying the immunity might be defeated because the governmental agencies might close the lake to boaters and water skiers to avoid the costs of tort liability.

In accordance with the purpose expressed in the legislative comment, we conclude that while the natural condition immunity may be applicable when the decayed tree limb falls on a user of the governmental property, it is not applicable when the limb injures adjacent property or persons on adjacent property because there is no danger that the governmental agency will close the property to use.

It is pointed out that section 831.2 does not contain any language exempting nonusers, but section 830.6 considered in Baldwin did not contain any language providing for an exception for changed circumstances. Just as this court in Baldwin gave effect to the legislative comment explaining the immunity, we do so now with respect to section 831.2.

The city also points out that an earlier version of the bill permitted immunity only "if at the time of the injury the person who suffered the injury was not using the property for a purpose for which the public entity intended the property to be used." (Amend. to Sen. Bill No. 42 (1963 Reg.Sess.) Mar. 19, 1963.) The deletion of this language does not show that the Legislature intended the immunity to apply to nonusers of the government property. Under the quoted language the immunity would apply only to unintended users, and it is clear from the committees' comment that the immunity was to be broadened to apply to all users whether intended users or unintended users. The comment points out that the immunity is "absolute," and there is nothing in the section or comment indicating that the immunity is conditional on type of use. (Osgood v. County of Shasta, supra, 50 Cal.App.3d 586, 590, 123 Cal.Rptr. 442; see 4 Cal.Law Revision Com.Rep. (1963...

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