Key Decisions

May 2012 – Needlessly Voluminous Summary Judgement

(filed under: | May 16, 2012)

Needlessly Voluminous Summary Judgment Evidentiary Objections Can Be Overruled As A Group

Cole v. Town of Los Gatos
(Cal. Ct. of App., 6th Dist.), filed April. 27, 2012

After attending a baseball game at Blossom Hill Park in Los Gatos, Sara Cole returned to her vehicle, which she had parked between the north edge of the park and Blossom Hill Road. While standing near the back of her vehicle she was hit by a car driven by Lucio Rodriguez, who was driving while intoxicated.

Cole brought suit against Rodriguez and the Town of Los Gatos. As to the Town, she alleged that the road and the area where she had parked — both of which were Town property — were in a dangerous condition because their configurations, coupled with their relative locations, induced park visitors to park where she had parked while inducing eastbound drivers on Blossom Hill Road to drive through that area in order to bypass stalled traffic on the road.

The trial court granted Town’s motion for summary judgment, finding no evidence that any dangerous condition of Town’s property was a proximate cause of Cole’s injuries.

The Court of Appeal reversed. It found that the evidence before the trial court raised numerous issues of fact concerning the existence of a dangerous condition and a causal relationship between the characteristics of the property and plaintiff’s injuries.

The court first addressed the standards for motions for summary judgment.

It then explained that:

The first step in analyzing any motion for summary judgment is to identify the elements of the challenged cause of action or defense in order to isolate those targeted by the motion. Plaintiff’s cause of action against Town is defined by statute, specifically the portion of the Government Claims Act entitled Liability of Public Entities and Public Employees. These statutes declare a general rule of immunity (Gov. Code, § 815) and then set out exceptions to that rule. Plaintiff invokes the exception for a dangerous condition of public property, as set out in Government Code section 835 (§ 835). As there laid out the cause of action consists of the following elements: (1) a dangerous condition of public property; (2) a foreseeable risk, arising from the dangerous condition, of the kind of injury the plaintiff suffered; (3) actionable conduct in connection with the condition, i.e., either negligence on the part of a public employee in creating it, or failure by the entity to correct it after notice of its existence and dangerousness; (4) a causal relationship between the dangerous condition and the plaintiff’s injuries; and (5) compensable damage sustained by the plaintiff.

The court then turned to the question of whether Cole had presented evidence that could have led a jury to find each of these elements. It said: “It thus appears that the only colorable grounds for the motion were that plaintiff was unable to establish two elements of her cause of action: a dangerous condition of public property, and a causal relationship between that condition and plaintiff’s injuries.” It addressed each in turn.

As to dangerous condition, the court said:

A “dangerous condition” for present purposes is “a condition of property that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial or insignificant) risk of injury when such property or adjacent property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.” … To establish a qualifying condition, the plaintiff must point to at least one “ ‘physical characteristic’ ” of the property. However the location of property may constitute a qualifying characteristic. Further, as the statutory language makes clear, a qualifying risk need not be one posed to users of the public property; it may be a hazard presented to users of “adjacent property.” It follows that, since all of the property involved here belonged to Town, a dangerous condition might consist of any characteristic of any part of that property that foreseeably endangered users of any other part.

It then ruled that Cole’s premise that there was a dangerous condition because “the configuration of Blossom Hill Road and the adjacent gravel area created a danger to users of the latter in that eastbound drivers on Blossom Hill Road were often induced to leave the road (as Rodriguez did) and enter the graveled area, where they posed an obvious hazard to persons who had parked there (as plaintiff did), and particularly those standing near the rear of a vehicle parked diagonally, as was the custom,” was amply supported by the evidence.

The court also found ample evidence of causation. It rejected Town’s assertion that Cole could not prove that the condition of its property was a substantial factor in causing her injury. It specifically rejected Town’s reliance on the fact that Rodriguez was drunk. While it is true that Rodriguez was drunk and a cause of the accident, it was possible that the dangerous condition of Town’s property was also a cause. The court even noted that Town’s argument was “contrary to first-year tort law, i.e., that an injury can have only one cause, or that only one tortfeasor can be held liable for it.”

The court rejected Town’s assertion that Rodriguez’ conduct was a superceding intervening cause of Cole’s injuries which would have precluded it from being liable.

The court addressed objections that Town raised to Cole’s declarations and evidence. Showing its displeasure with multiple meritless objections, the court said:

Town opens each objection by citing one or two rules of evidence but in the ensuing discussion manages to allude to perhaps half of the major principles in the Evidence Code. We believe that where a trial court is confronted on summary judgment with a large number of nebulous evidentiary objections, a fair sample of which appear to be meritless, the court can properly overrule, and a reviewing court ignore, all of the objections on the ground that they constitute oppression of the opposing party and an imposition on the resources of the court. We also note that an evidentiary objection is only preserved for review if it is “so stated as to make clear the specific ground of the objection.” (Evid. Code, § 353, subd. (a), italics by the court.) Failure to comply with this requirement furnishes its own ground for overruling objections such as those before us.

The court was also critical of Town’s reasoning in connection with its objections. It deemed certain objections to have been abandoned by virtue of Town’s failure to cite authority or make coherent argument in support of them. It then remarked on Town’s objection that Cole’s expert’s opinion as to the condition of Town’s property was irrelevant.

The real gist of the objection, then, is not that the evidence failed to establish a dangerous condition, but that evidence of a dangerous condition was itself rendered immaterial by plaintiff’s supposed inability to establish another element of the cause of action, i.e., proximate cause.

It might indeed be argued, as a matter of abstract logic, that when a party cannot prove one necessary element of his cause of action, evidence of other elements ceases to be “of consequence to the determination of the action.” (Evid. Code, § 210.) But this is only because once the stated condition is established, the entire matter should be concluded against the party asserting that cause of action. At that point all further evidence, no matter who offers it, becomes inconsequential. The court should enter judgment forthwith; it certainly need not trouble itself with disputes over evidence. Here, if plaintiff was unable to establish causation there was no occasion to consider the relevance of its expert’s opinions, or any other question, concerning the existence of a dangerous condition. Under the stated premise, Town was entitled to judgment without so much as a glance at the Evidence Code.

Town’s relevance objection thus appears to constitute a peculiar kind of rhetorical periphrasis or circumlocution in which one argument (inadmissibility of evidence) is used as a kind of Trojan horse for another, quite different argument (lack of causation). Since Town elsewhere asserted the real point without any such disguise (see pt. III, post), the only effect of its assertion in a different guise—and the only apparent purpose—is to weigh down Town’s presentation with additional verbiage. From the perspective of judicial efficiency, not to mention logical parsimony, this objection should have been disregarded as redundant and superfluous.

In a footnote, the court followed up:

This stratagem, unfortunately, recurs throughout Town’s presentation below and on appeal. An argumentative heading asserting some seemingly dispositive premise will be followed by a non-syllogistic, inconclusive discussion of that premise culminating in a repetition of the claim that, in any event, plaintiff cannot establish proximate cause. A motion confined to that single ground might not have led the trial court into error and might not have generated this expensive and unnecessary appeal. Certainly it would have consumed fewer resources than Town’s motion has.