Sprecher v. Adamson Companies

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Writing for the CourtBIRD; RICHARDSON
Citation30 Cal.3d 358,178 Cal.Rptr. 783,636 P.2d 1121
Parties, 636 P.2d 1121 Peter SPRECHER, Cross-complainant and Appellant, v. ADAMSON COMPANIES et al., Cross-defendants and Respondents. L.A. 31394
Decision Date07 December 1981

Page 783

178 Cal.Rptr. 783
30 Cal.3d 358, 636 P.2d 1121
Peter SPRECHER, Cross-complainant and Appellant,
v.
ADAMSON COMPANIES et al., Cross-defendants and Respondents.
L.A. 31394.
Supreme Court of California
Dec. 7, 1981.

[30 Cal.3d 360] Dunne, Shallcross & Kane, Mark C. Kane, Los Angeles, and Gary S. Elster, San Diego, for cross-complainant and appellant.

Tuttle & Taylor and Douglas W. Beck, Los Angeles, for cross-defendants and respondents.

BIRD, Chief Justice.

This case concerns the present validity of the old common law rule which immunized a possessor of land from liability for injury caused by a natural condition of his land to persons or property not on his land.

I.

The following facts are not in dispute. Respondent, South Winter Mesa Associates, a joint venture between respondents The Adamson Companies and Century-Malibu

Page 784

[636 P.2d 1122] Ventures, Inc., owns a 90-acre parcel of land in Malibu, California. The parcel is bounded on the north by [30 Cal.3d 361] the Pacific Coast Highway and on the south by Malibu Road. Across Malibu Road and opposite the parcel are a number of beach front homes, including the home of appellant, Peter Sprecher.

Respondents' parcel of land contains part of an active landslide which extends seaward from the parcel for some 1,700 feet along Malibu Road and beyond the boundaries of respondents' property. The Sprecher property is situated within the toe of this slide. The landslide, which has been evident since the area was first developed in the early 1900's, is classified as active because it exhibits periodic cycles of activity and dormancy. The parties agree that the slide is a natural condition of the land which has not been affected by any of respondents' activities on the 90-acre parcel.

In March 1978, heavy spring rains triggered a major movement of the slide which caused appellant's home to rotate and to press against the home of his neighbor, Gwendolyn Sexton. As a result, Sexton filed an action against appellant, seeking to enjoin the encroachment of his home upon hers. Appellant cross-complained against Sexton, the County of Los Angeles and respondents. 1 Specifically, appellant sought damages for the harm done to his home by the landslide. He alleged that such damage proximately resulted from respondents' negligent failure to correct or to control the landslide condition.

Respondents moved for summary judgment, arguing primarily that a possessor of land has no duty to remedy a natural condition of the land in order to prevent harm to property outside his premises. Since the landslide was a natural condition, they argued that they were not liable for the damage to appellant's home. 2

In opposition, appellant challenged the present validity of the common law rule of nonliability for a natural condition, arguing that the rule is neither premised upon sound public policy nor in accord with modern principles of tort liability.

The trial court ruled in favor of respondents and this appeal followed.

30 Cal.3d 362

II.

Summary judgment is properly granted where the evidence in support of the moving party, here the respondents, is sufficient to establish a complete defense to appellant's claims and there is no triable issue of fact. (Frazier, Dame, Doherty, Parrish & Hanawalt v. Boccardo, Blum, Lull, Niland, Teerlink & Bell (1977) 70 Cal.App.3d 331, 338, 138 Cal.Rptr. 670; Stationers Corp. v. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. (1965) 62 Cal.2d 412, 417, 42 Cal.Rptr. 449, 398 P.2d 785.) Obviously, a rule of law, such as the traditional rule regarding natural conditions, which provides that a defendant has no duty to protect plaintiff is a complete defense to a claim of negligence. Its effect is to immunize or exempt the defendant from liability for negligence. Therefore, the first question this court must decide is whether a possessor of land should be immunized from liability for harm caused by a natural condition of his land to persons outside his premises. That is, should a possessor's exposure to liability be determined by reference to the origin of the condition causing harm or in accord with the ordinary principles of negligence.

Under the common law, the major important limitation upon the responsibility of a possessor of land to those outside his premises concerned the natural condition of the land. (Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed. 1971) § 57, p. 354.) 3 While the possessor's liability

Page 785

[636 P.2d 1123] for harm caused by artificial conditions 4 was determined in accord with ordinary principles of negligence (id., at p. 355; see Rest.2d Torts, §§ 364-370), the common law gave him an absolute immunity from liability for harm caused by conditions considered natural in origin. (Prosser, supra, at p. 354; see Rest.2d Torts, § 363, subd. (1).) No matter how great the harm threatened to his neighbor, or to one passing by, and no matter how small the effort needed to eliminate it, a possessor of land had no duty to remedy conditions that were natural in origin. (Rest.2d Torts, § 363, com. a; Prosser, supra, at p. 354.)

[30 Cal.3d 363] This court has held that it will not depart from the fundamental concept that a person is liable for injuries caused "by his want of ordinary care ... in the management of his property or person ..." (Civ.Code, § 1714) except when such a departure is "clearly supported by public policy." (Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 112, 70 Cal.Rptr. 97, 443 P.2d 561.) Accordingly, common law distinctions resulting in wholesale immunities have been struck down when such distinctions could not withstand critical scrutiny. (E. g., id., at pp. 118-119, 70 Cal.Rptr. 97, 443 P.2d 561; Dillon v. Legg (1968) 68 Cal.2d 728, 69 Cal.Rptr. 72, 441 P.2d 912; Elmore v. American Motors Corp. (1969) 70 Cal.2d 578, 75 Cal.Rptr. 652, 451 P.2d 84; see generally, Levy & Ursin, Tort Law in California: At the Crossroads (1979) 67 Cal.L.Rev. 497, 504-511 (collecting cases).)

In Rowland, this court stated that "(a) departure from (the) fundamental principle (of Civil Code section 1714) involves the balancing of a number of considerations(.) (T)he major ones are the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and (the) consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved." (Rowland v. Christian, supra, 69 Cal.2d at pp. 112-113, 70 Cal.Rptr. 97, 443 P.2d 561.)

There appear to be only five California cases which refer to or deal with the distinction between artificial and natural conditions on land. 5 (Coates v. Chinn (1958) 51 Cal.2d 304, 332 P.2d 289; Harris v. De La Chapelle (1976) 55 Cal.App.3d 644, 127 Cal.Rptr. 695; Wisher v. Fowler (1970) 7 Cal.App.3d 225, 86 Cal.Rptr. 582; Potter v. Empress Theatre Co. (1949) 91 Cal.App.2d 4, 204 P.2d 120; Boarts v. Imperial Irrigation Dist. (1947) 80 Cal.App.2d 574, 182 P.2d 246.) Three of these decisions were concerned with the question of liability for damage caused by a natural, as opposed to an artificial, condition. Boarts relied on this distinction to deny recovery (Boarts v. Imperial Irrigation Dist., supra, at p. 578, 182 P.2d 246); Wisher questioned its applicability in an urban setting [30 Cal.3d 364] Wisher v. Fowler, supra, 7 Cal.App.3d at p. 229, 86 Cal.Rptr. 582); and Harris held that in an urban area, "a landowner is liable for conditions occurring where he fails to exercise reasonable care to (prevent) an unreasonable risk of harm to users of the highway from trees on his property" (Harris v. De La Chapelle, supra, 55 Cal.App.3d at p. 648, 127 Cal.Rptr. 695). This court has not previously addressed the wisdom of the common

Page 786

[636 P.2d 1124] law rule of nonliability for harm caused by a natural condition to persons outside the premises. Coats v. Chinn, supra, 51 Cal.2d at p. 308, 332 P.2d 289, did no more than tacitly recognize that the rule of nonliability existed.

This progression of the law in California mirrors what appears to be a general trend toward rejecting the common law distinction between natural and artificial conditions. Instead, the courts are increasingly using ordinary negligence principles to determine a possessor's liability for harm caused by a condition of the land. The early case of Gibson v. Denton (1896) 4 A.D. 198, 38 N.Y.S. 554 was a precursor of this trend. In Gibson, the court held a possessor of land liable for damage caused when a decayed tree on her premises fell on the home of her neighbor during a storm. After noting that the defendant clearly would be liable for the fall of a dilapidated building, or artificial structure, the court observed that it could "see no good reason why she should not be responsible for the fall of a decayed tree, which she allowed to remain on her premises." (Id., at p. 555.) "(T)he tree was on her lot, and was her property. It was as much under her control as a pole or building in the same position would have been." (Ibid.) Thus, "(t)he defendant had no more right to keep, maintain, or suffer to remain on her premises an unsound tree ... than she would have had to keep a dilapidated and unsafe building in the same position." (Id., at pp. 555-556.)

In more recent years, at least 13 other states and the District of Columbia have begun applying ordinary negligence principles in determining a possessor's liability for harm caused by a natural condition. These states include Illinois (Mahurin v. Lockhart (1979) 71 Ill.App.3d 691, 28 Ill.Dec. 356, 390 N.E.2d 523); Oregon (Taylor v. Olsen (1978) 282 Or. 343, 578 P.2d 779); Georgia (Cornett v. Agee (1977) 143 Ga.App. 55, 237 S.E.2d 522); Pennsylvania (Barker v. Brown...

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143 practice notes
  • Alpert v. Villa Romano Homeowners Assn., No. B118182.
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 31, 2000
    ...(216 Cal.App.3d at p. 521, 265 Cal. Rptr. 15.) The Williams court did recognize the holding of Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121 (Sprecher), that a landowner may be held liable for negligent 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 375 failure to correct or control ......
  • Orange Cnty. Water Dist. v. Alcoa Global Fasteners, Inc., D070771
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • June 1, 2017
    ...prevent harm from dangerous artificial conditions on his or her property, regardless of their origin. (SeeSprecher v. Adamson Cos. (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 367-370, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121 ; Coates v. Chinn (1958) 51 Cal.2d 304, 308, 332 P.2d 289.) Whatever the merits of the District'......
  • Sheffield v. Eli Lilly & Co,, No. A013100
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • June 8, 1983
    ...law. (See Brown v. Bleiberg (1982) 32 Cal.3d 426, 436, fn. 7, 186 Cal.Rptr. 228, 651 P.2d 815; Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 362, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121; Chern v. Bank of America (1976) 15 Cal.3d 866, 873, 127 Cal.Rptr. 110, Page 889 544 P.2d 1310; Cornelison......
  • Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Superior Court of L.A. Cnty., B259424
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • October 7, 2015
    ...cases where the question of negligence is properly decided by the court as a matter of law. (Cf. Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 373, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121 [reversing summary judgment where “evidence does not conclusively establish that no rational inference o......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
143 cases
  • Alpert v. Villa Romano Homeowners Assn., No. B118182.
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 31, 2000
    ...(216 Cal.App.3d at p. 521, 265 Cal. Rptr. 15.) The Williams court did recognize the holding of Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121 (Sprecher), that a landowner may be held liable for negligent 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 375 failure to correct or control ......
  • Orange Cnty. Water Dist. v. Alcoa Global Fasteners, Inc., D070771
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • June 1, 2017
    ...prevent harm from dangerous artificial conditions on his or her property, regardless of their origin. (SeeSprecher v. Adamson Cos. (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 367-370, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121 ; Coates v. Chinn (1958) 51 Cal.2d 304, 308, 332 P.2d 289.) Whatever the merits of the District'......
  • Sheffield v. Eli Lilly & Co,, No. A013100
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • June 8, 1983
    ...law. (See Brown v. Bleiberg (1982) 32 Cal.3d 426, 436, fn. 7, 186 Cal.Rptr. 228, 651 P.2d 815; Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 362, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121; Chern v. Bank of America (1976) 15 Cal.3d 866, 873, 127 Cal.Rptr. 110, Page 889 544 P.2d 1310; Cornelison......
  • Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Superior Court of L.A. Cnty., B259424
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • October 7, 2015
    ...cases where the question of negligence is properly decided by the court as a matter of law. (Cf. Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358, 373, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121 [reversing summary judgment where “evidence does not conclusively establish that no rational inference o......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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