Recently, the widow of an Orange County bicyclist filed a lawsuit against the city of Newport Beach, California. The widow alleged that the city’s failure to create warning signs and safe site lines, as well as its confusing signage, created an unreasonable risk of harm, which contributed to the accident that fatally injured her husband. The case raises questions about when the government may be held liable for bicycle and other types of accidents, explains an attorney.
Unlike a private party or a company, the government cannot simply be sued whenever they do something allegedly negligent or whenever it appears they have created an unsafe situation. Government employees and government agencies are both protected, to a certain extent, from being sued for any actions that they take in the course of performing their public service work.
The rules for governmental immunity are set forth in California Government Code section 817, which stipulate that unless otherwise provided by statute:
“A public entity is not liable for an injury, whether such injury arises out of an act or omission of the public entity or a public employee or any other person.”
Essentially, this code section means that the government cannot be sued for things such as unsafe road conditions, bad signage or poor design of a road unless an exception exists by law (statute) that allows for the government to be sued.
Limits to Government Immunity
While government immunity provides important protection for government workers and government agencies, that immunity is not absolute. After all, there needs to be some way for citizens to hold the government responsible when they fail in their obligations in a way that causes injury or death.
The exceptions to government immunity are found within the government code that establishes the limited immunity rule. For instance, Government Code §830 establishes the rule that the government can be responsible for the creation of a dangerous condition provided that the danger is a substantial risk. Substantial risks are distinguished from minor or trivial risks and the question of whether a risk is sufficiently substantial is a question of fact to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
In the event that road conditions are unsafe-whether due to poor design or signage-and pose a foreseeable risk of harm when used as intended, the government may be held liable for accidents occurring on them. However, those seeking damages for expenses or loss resulting from an accident will have the burden of proving either that the government knew about the risk and neglected to take measures to remove it or that an employee of the government was negligent in the design or maintenance of the area, thereby breaching his or her duty of care.
Provided the widow of the Orange County bicycle rider can show that the city was responsible for the condition, and that the dangerous roadways directly led to foreseeable harm to her husband, she should be able to hold the city at least partially responsible for his fatal injuries and seek damages for her loss, explains an attorney.
Additional information on this and other subjects, including books and articles on the process of pursuing an injury or a wrongful death claim after an accident, are available to the public free of charge through our office.