Attorney Timothy Tietjen Sets Precedent in Securing California Supreme Court Ruling

On October 11, the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by San Mateo County that sought reversal of the trial court’s denial of a motion for summary judgment based on the County’s asserted claim of natural-conditions immunity. Thus, the road is clear for our teenaged client to finally get his day in court.

In the summer of 2012, 12-year-old Zachary Rowe went camping with his mother in a designated campground in San Mateo County Memorial Park. He was injured when, at 5:00 a.m., a rotten 72-foot-tall tanoak tree fell and struck the tent where he was sleeping, causing catastrophic injuries. The tree was about 20 feet from a paved access road and surrounded by a cluster of five campsites, including Zachary’s. The tree was also between 30 and 40 feet from PG&E’s power line, and within range of the line if it fell in that direction. Zachary filed suit against San Mateo County, alleging a dangerous condition of public property.

The county moved for summary judgment, claiming immunity under Government Code § 831.2, which immunizes public entities for injuries caused by natural conditions of public property. After plaintiff prevailed in the trial court, the county filed a petition for writ review, which was granted.

The County’s motion and writ followed close on the heels of two other recent appellate decision interpreting § 831.2 in the context of falling trees. The first, Meddock v. County of Yolo (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 170,

'[H]eld a public entity immune from suit by a plaintiff who was injured when standing in an improved area of public property (the paved parking lot of a boat ramp) when a tree growing in a nearby area fell on him. The Meddock court assumed, but did not decide, that the tree itself was located on unimproved property. It concluded that because the plaintiff’s injuries “were caused by decaying natural trees located on unimproved property,” the county was immune.'

Then, last year, the First District in Alana M. v. State of California (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 1482, 1487,

'[H]eld a public entity immune from suit when a tree fell and injured a child sleeping in a tent in a state-owned campground.'
Relying in part on Meddock, the court announced the rule that,
“[w]hen the location of the injury is different from the location of the natural condition, the character of the location of the injury is not relevant.”

Focusing narrowly on the location of the tree before it fell, the Alana M. court found that the lack of evidence of any artificial physical change of the land within 24 feet of the tree or in the condition of the tree dispositive.

In contrast, the appellate court in Rowe’s case pointed to,

'[E]vidence from which a trier of fact could conclude the diseased tanoak tree was not in a different location than the site of the accident, and was growing in an improved area.'

First, unlike in Alana M., there was evidence the trunk of the tree was growing within the boundary of Zachary’s own campsite. And also unlike either predecessor tree-falling case, the plaintiff introduced evidence via expert declarations at the MSJ hearing that the developments made in Memorial Park and its campgrounds caused by intense camping, construction, urbanization, and development uses created conditions that caused the tree's infection by fungus and, ultimately, its failure. Accordingly, the trial court’s denial of the County’s MSJ was affirmed.

County of San Mateo v. Superior Court (Rowe) (2017) 13 Cal.App.5th 724, rev. denied Oct 11, 2017.

The SFGate article about the ruling can be read here and the Court of Appeal Opinion can be read here.