Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, close sometimes isn’t close enough.
In the next case, Hernandez v. City of Stockton, 90 Cal.App.5th 1222 (2023), the Third District Court of appeal found that a pedestrian who sued a public entity for personal injuries caused by an “uplifted sidewalk” was barred from pursuing his claim when it was revealed that he had in fact injured himself by falling into a hole left by an “empty tree well” (i.e., a tree well that did not contain a tree”). According to the Court, the pedestrian’s claim was barred because the factual basis for recovery asserted in his complaint was not “fairly reflected” in his government claim.
The Hernandez Case
In April 2018, pedestrian Manual Sanchez Hernandez injured himself while walking on a public sidewalk in Stockton, California. He submitted a government claim with the City of Stockton claiming that his injuries, which included injuries to his knee, hands and back, was caused by a dangerous condition on public property. In his government claim, Hernandez alleged that he tripped on an “uplifted sidewalk” at or near 230 E. Charter Way in Stockton, California and that his injuries were due because the City “negligently and recklessly designed, maintained and operated the subject property so as to cause [his] injuries.”
Following receipt of the government claim, a liability claims investigator inspected the sidewalk near 230 E. Charter Way in Stockton, California. Unable to find anything that could be characterized as an “uplifted sidewalk, the investigator notified Hernandez’ counsel and advised that Hernandez’ government claim could not be considered because it did not substantially comply with section 910 and 910.2 of the Government Claims Act because the investigator was unable to “determine the loss location” based on the description of the area where the incident occurred. The investigator’s notice requested that Hernandez provide photographs of the sidewalk near 230 E. Charter Way showing the “precise area of fall” or a “may or diagram” depicting or specifying the “exact loss location.” Hernandez did not respond to the notice or submit an amended government claim. Thereafter, the City rejected Hernandez’ government claim.
In June 2018, Hernandez filed a lawsuit against the City alleging a claim for dangerous condition on public property. In his complaint, Hernandez alleged that the dangerous condition caused him to “trip and fall on the sidewalk surface while walking.” However, the complaint did not specifically identify the dangerous condition as an “uplifted sidewalk,” but rather, more broadly complained that the “sidewalk surface” constituted a “dangerous condition” that resulted in his injuries.
Three years later, in March 2021, the City filed a motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the City argued that Hernandez was “suing on a factual basis never reflected in his [government] claim,” that this was “disallowed” under the Government Claims Act, and that summary judgment should be granted in favor of the City. In support of its motion, the City relied on deposition testimony of Hernandez in which he stated that he “tripped in a hole,” specifically, an empty tree well that did not contain a tree.
In opposition to the motion, Hernandez argued that his government claim, which identified the dangerous condition as an “uplifted sidewalk,” and his complaint, which identified the dangerous condition as an uneven “sidewalk surface,” were “factual[ly] equivalent” and that his complaint did not “alter the theory of the nature of the dangerous condition” in his government claim.
The trial court agreed with the City and found that Hernandez’ factual basis for recovery identified in his complaint was not “fairly reflected” in his government claim because Hernandez’ government claim was premised on injuries sustained due to an “uplifted sidewalk” while his complaint was premised on injuries caused by a “tree well hole” which had not been identified in the government claim.
On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal explained that the Government Claims Act was enacted to provide a “comprehensive statutory scheme governing the liabilities and immunities of public entities and public employees for torts” and its intent was to confine governmental liability to “rigidly delineated circumstances.” “Under the Government Claims Act,” explained the Court, “there is no such thing as common law tort liability for public entities; a public entity is not liable for an injury ‘except as otherwise provided by statute.’”
One such statute, explained the Court of Appeal, includes liability of a public entity for “injuries caused by dangerous conditions of public property.” A “dangerous condition,” explained the Court of Appeal, is “a condition of property that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial or insignificant) risk of injury when such property . . . is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.” Further explained the Court:
“[A] claim alleging a dangerous condition may not rely on generalized allegations [citation] but must specify in what manner the condition constituted a dangerous condition.” A plaintiff’s allegations, and ultimately the evidence, must establish a physical deficiency in the property itself. A dangerous condition exists when public property “is physically damaged, deteriorated, or defective in such a way as to foreseeably endanger those using the property itself,” or possesses physical characteristics in its design, location, features or relationship to its surroundings that endanger users.’
Further, explained the Court of Appeal, when presenting a government claim:
Although a government claim need not contain the detail and specificity required of a pleading in a civil action, it nevertheless must “`fairly describe what [the] entity is alleged to have done.’” When a civil action is filed following the rejection of a government claim, it is acceptable for the complaint to elaborate or add further details to a government claim, but the complaint may not completely “shift [the] allegations” and premise liability on facts that fundamentally differ from those specified in the government claim. In other words, the factual basis for recovery in the complaint must be “fairly reflected” in the government claim.
And, here, held the Court Appeal, Hernandez’ government claim “specifically and solely identified an ‘uplifted sidewalk’ as the dangerous condition that caused his injuries” while in his legal action “lability is premised on a different dangerous condition – a hole created by an empty tree well.” As such, stated the Court, “the complaint did not allege an uneven sidewalk surface of any kind, ad the condition that ultimately revealed to be the subject of the lawsuit was a hole in an area devoid of cement sidewalk surface, in an area clearly intended for a tree rather than for pedestrian traffic” and “[n]o area of the sidewalk was ‘uplifted’ by any stretch of the imagination.”
The Court of Appeal also rejected Hernandez’ argument that the City “knew” that the government claim was premised on tree well hole because, in deposition, the engineer with the City testified that he knew the government claim was based on Hernandez tripping in a hole created by an empty tree well:
[I]t is well-settled that the claim presentation requirement “`”must be satisfied even in face of the public entity’s actual knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the claim.”‘” Moreover, we note that there is nothing in the record showing that the City was aware of the actual cause of plaintiff’s fall prior to the rejection of his government claim. Further, the record reflects that [the City engineer] inspected the sidewalk after plaintiff’s government claim was rejected, and that [the City engineer] was deposed after plaintiff disclosed for first time in his February 2021 deposition that the dangerous condition was a hole created by an empty tree well. Prior to being deposed in this matter, [the City engineer] reviewed the statements plaintiff made in his deposition, which included plaintiff’s explanation of how he tripped and fell. Plaintiff has failed to show that reversal is required under the circumstances presented.
So there you have it. You may be able to get close enough when it comes to horseshoes and hand grenades, but when it comes to claims under the Government Claims Act, a government claim must “fairly reflect” the actual claims being pursued in litigation.