Cordova v. City of Los Angeles – Median Trees a Roadway Danger

A fiery, two-vehicle crash in California resulted in the deaths of four young people (three of them siblings) and severe injury to a fifth. One of the siblings killed, the driver, was also pregnant.
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Authorities would later determine a 19-year-old driver careened into the victims’ vehicle traveling 70 mph in a 35 mph zone. It’s believed the victims’ vehicle was also traveling above the speed limit. The force of the impact caused the victims’ vehicle to spin out-of-control and slam into a cluster of magnolia trees located in the median. All were wearing seat belts, and even still, four were ejected from the car.

There was no indication the at-fault driver was impaired by drugs or alcohol, but he was arrested and later convicted of four counts of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence.

Subsequently, the parents who had lost three children – and an unborn grandchild – took legal action against the City of Los Angeles. In Cordova v. City of Los Angeles, plaintiffs alleged the large trees located in the median – about seven feet from the inside lane of the road where victims were traveling, posed an unreasonable risk to motorists.

Specifically, there was a risk to drivers who might lose control of their vehicles. This dangerous condition, they alleged proximately caused their children’s fatal injuries.

Defendant city moved for summary judgment, asserting neither the median nor the street were dangerous, and the accident resulted from the reckless conduct of a third party – not any feature of the public property. The trees, defense allege, did not cause the other driver to act recklessly, and thus was not a proximate cause of decedents’ deaths.

To counter this assertion, plaintiffs submitted:

  • Summaries of 142 car accidents that had taken place on that stretch of road over a 10-year span;
  • Two publications by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials discussing the “clear zone” concept of roadside safety;
  • Testimony from numerous expert witnesses who theorized the closeness of the trees to the road posed a substantial and foreseeable hazard to the public.

Trial court granted summary judgment, and appeals court affirmed. Both lower courts held that because the trees didn’t cause the at-fault driver to operate recklessly, the trees were not the proximate cause of decedents’ fatal injuries.

But the California Supreme Court reversed. It is not necessary to show the trees caused the reckless driving, only that they were a substantial factor in the injuries. So what plaintiffs must show is that decedents likely would have survived had the trees not been placed so close to the road, and that this danger was known or knowable to the city, which in turn did not sufficiently mitigate the harm.

The high court’s decision doesn’t mean plaintiff’s automatically win their case. However, it does give them the opportunity to try to prove the city’s negligence at trial.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Cordova v. City of Los Angeles, Aug. 13, 2015, California Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
McClue v. Safeco Ins. Co. – ALS Triggered by Car Accident Trauma, Aug. 10, 2015, Spartanburg Car Accident Attorney Blog

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