Judge: Jill Feeney, Case: 19STCV38944, Date: 2022-08-08 Tentative Ruling

Case Number: 19STCV38944    Hearing Date: August 8, 2022    Dept: 30

Department 30, Spring Street Courthouse
August 8, 2022
19STCV38944
Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant City of Southgate 

DECISION 

The motion is denied.

Moving party is ordered to provide notice.

Background

On October 29, 2019, Plaintiff Luz Maria Paz Canteros (“Plaintiff”) filed her complaint against Defendants the County of Los Angeles, the City of South Gate, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Does 1 through 250. Plaintiff brings a cause of action for governmental tort liability, alleging she tripped and fell on a sidewalk in South Gate, California in 2019.

On April 8, 2022, Defendant City of South Gate ( “Defendant or City”) filed its motion for summary judgment. City is the only defendant remaining in the case.

Summary of Arguments

Moving Arguments

City argues that Plaintiff’s cause of action fails to raise any triable issue of material fact because she failed to present a timely and proper claim to the City that complied with the requirements of Government Code sections 905, 910, 911.2, and 945.4. Specifically, City alleges that Plaintiff’s description of where her fall took place was different from where the fall actually occurred. City argues that Plaintiff’s claim fails because City was not given adequate opportunity to investigate her trip and fall incident.

Opposing Arguments

Plaintiff argues that Defendant fails to meet its burden because Plaintiff’s claim only needed to fairly describe what City was alleged to have done. Plaintiff also argues that there are other disputes over material facts regarding whether City is liable for the dangerous condition that caused Plaintiff’s fall. Additionally, Plaintiff requests that the hearing on City’s motion for summary judgment be continued because a deposition that has yet to be completed would provide more information needed to justify opposition to the motion.
 
Reply Arguments
None.
Evidentiary Objections 

Plaintiff objects to City’s evidence submitted in support of its motion for summary judgment.

The following objections are overruled: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Legal Standard

The purpose of a motion for summary judgment “is to provide courts with a mechanism to cut through the parties’ pleadings in order to determine whether, despite their allegations, trial is in fact necessary to resolve their dispute.” (Aguilar v. Atl. Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843.) “Code of Civil Procedure section 437c(c), requires the trial judge to grant summary judgment if all the evidence submitted, and ‘all inferences reasonably deducible from the evidence’ and uncontradicted by other inferences or evidence, show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Adler v. Manor Healthcare Corp. (1992) 7 Cal.App.4th 1110, 1119.) 

“On a motion for summary judgment, the initial burden is always on the moving party to make a prima facie showing that there are no triable issues of material fact.” (Scalf v. D. B. Log Homes, Inc. (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 1510, 1519.) A defendant moving for summary judgment “has met his or her burden of showing that a cause of action has no merit if the party has shown that one or more elements of the cause of action . . . cannot be established.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c(p)(2).) “Once the defendant . . . has met that burden, the burden shifts to the plaintiff . . . to show that a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to the cause of action or a defense thereto.” (Ibid.) “If the plaintiff cannot do so, summary judgment should be granted.” (Avivi v. Centro Medico Urgente Med. Ctr. (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 463, 467.) 

“When deciding whether to grant summary judgment, the court must consider all of the evidence set forth in the papers (except evidence to which the court has sustained an objection), as well as all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from that evidence, in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment.” (Avivi, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 467; see also Code Civ. Proc., § 437c(c).) 

Discussion 

City’s motion turns on whether Plaintiff’s Liability Claim was substantially compliant with the Government Torts Claim Act.

A plaintiff seeking to sue a public entity for money or damages must first present a government claim to that public entity within six months after the accrual of the cause of action. (Gov’t Code § 905; § 915, subd. (d); section 911.2, subd. (a).) A claim presented must include:  
 
“(a) The name and post office address of the claimant.  
(b) The post office address to which the person presenting the claim desires notices to be sent.  
(c) The date, place, and other circumstances of the occurrence or transaction which gave rise to the claim asserted.  
(d) A general description of the indebtedness, obligation, injury, damage, or loss, if known. 
(e) The name or names of the public employee or employees causing the injury, damage, or loss, if known.  
(f) The amount claimed if totals less than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) as of the date of presentation of the claim, including the estimated amount of any prospective injury, damage, or loss, insofar as it may be known at the time of the presentation of the claim, together with the basis of computation of the amount claimed. If the amount claimed exceeds ten thousand dollars ($10,000), no dollar amount shall be included in the claim. However, it shall indicate whether the claim would be a limited civil case.”  
(Gov’t Code, section 910.)   

No suit for money damages may be brought against a public entity on a cause of action if no government claim has first been presented and acted upon by the governing body of the local public entity (the “Board”) or has been deemed rejected. (Gov’t Code, sections 900.2; 945.4.) (“Tort Claim Act”)

“Where there has been an attempt to comply [with the claims statute] but the compliance is defective, the test of substantial compliance controls. Under this test, the court must ask whether sufficient information is disclosed on the face of the filed claim ‘to reasonably enable the public entity to make an adequate investigation of the merits of the claim and settle it without the expense of a lawsuit.’” (Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. v. County of Riverside (1980) 106 Cal.App.3d 183, 188, 165 Cal.Rptr. 29.) There is a twofold test for substantial compliance: Is there some compliance with all of the statutory requirements; and, if so, is this compliance sufficient to constitute substantial compliance?” (Id.) If a notice was sufficient to trigger an obligation on the part of the agency to give written notice to the claimant of the sufficiency or insufficiency of the claim, then the claim is substantially compliant. (Phillips v. Desert Hospital Dist. (1989) 49 Cal.3d 699, 705.) 

If a complaint fails to allege compliance with the Tort Claims Act, a complaint is subject to a general demurrer or to a motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Wood v. Riverside General Hospital (1994) 25 Cal.App.4th 1113, 1119.) A motion for summary judgment may effectively operate as a motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Id.) The motion would be granted with leave to amend. (Id.)

Here, City’s evidence shows that Plaintiff presented a Liability Claim Form to the City Clerk’s Office on May 13, 2019. (Compendium, Exhibit A-2; UMF No. 1.) The claim states “Plaintiff was walking on the sidewalk at or near Tweedy Elementary School. The right (illegible) on the sidewalk was uneven at its edges. She fell down on her knees and hands then backwards on her buttocks.” (Compendium, Exhibit A.) The form states the place of the incident was “9724 Pinehurst Ave., South Gate, CA 90280.” (Id.) Plaintiff’s Complaint states “Plaintiff sustained injuries as a result of a trip-and-fall on a certain premises and/or sidewalk in the City of South Gate, County of Los Angeles, State of California located at or near 9724 Pinehurst Ave, South Gate, CA 90280.” (Compl., ¶15.) 

City’s Field Operations Manager, David Torres, inspected the sidewalk “immediately adjacent to the school” and the “sidewalk located at 9727 Pinehurst Avenue…on the West side of Tweedy Elementary School.” (Torres Decl., ¶¶4-5.) Senior Claims Examiner with Carl Warren, City’s Third Party Claims Administrator, observed that the asphalt ramped area at 9724 Pinehurst Avenue was the only location that matched the description of the location of the incident. (UMF No. 10.) Following his examination, Carl Warren issued a Notice of Rejection of the Claim to Plaintiff. (UMF No. 11.) At deposition, Plaintiff testified that she “fell on Atlantic and Duncan, on the sidewalk by the school.” (Canteros Depo. 26:7-8; UMF No. 14.) Specifically, Plaintiff stated she “fell on Atlantic and Duncan…in the rear part of the school.” (Canteros Depo. 27:10-13.)

City has not met its burden of showing that no triable issues of material fact exist over whether Plaintiff’s claim complied with the Government Torts Act. Applying the test of substantial compliance, Plaintiff did make an attempt to comply by submitting her Liability Claim Form, which was submitted to the correct administrator, Carl Warren. Plaintiff’s Form substantially complied with the requirements of the Torts Claim Act by including (1) her name and address, (2) the address where Plaintiff desired notices to be sent, (3) the date, location near Tweedy Elementary School, and the circumstances of her fall, (4) a statement that she did not know the employee that caused her injury, (5) and the amount of damages which exceeded $25,000. Plaintiff’s Claim is not lacking substantial information required by the Government Torts Act and is thus in substantial compliance with the statutory requirements. 

City argues that the address Plaintiff provided on the form did not allow City a reasonable opportunity to investigate the matter. However, the evidence shows that the sidewalk where Plaintiff fell was abutting Tweedy Elementary School. Plaintiff’s Liability Claim Form stated she fell at or near Tweedy Elementary School and included the address of the school. Moreover, Plaintiff’s claim was sufficient such that it triggered City’s Third Party Claims Administrator to initiate an investigation and inform her of the insufficiency of her claim. (Phillips v. Desert Hospital Dist. (1989) 49 Cal.3d 699, 705.) Under the substantial compliance test, the information Plaintiff provided was enough to show that she substantially complied with the requirements enumerated in Gov. Code section 910. 

City cites other cases that were dismissed for failure to comply with government claims filing requirements. However, the plaintiffs in those cases failed entirely to comply with one of the mandates of the Torts Claim Act. City cites Hall v. City of Los Angeles, where the plaintiff there failed entirely to claim where the injury occurred. Hall v. City of Los Angeles (1941) 19 Cal.2d 198, 202. Hall cites cases in other jurisdictions where a claim is fatally defective if it fails to designate the place of the accident in such a manner at to enable the officials to locate it. (Id.) However, those cases concern errors where the location is misstated by several blocks or where neither a search of the locality or inquiry of the plaintiff could have revealed the location. (Id.) Additionally, Hall does not adopt standards for compliance from other jurisdictions. Rather, Hall states that the “entire failure” to designate the location of the incident renders a claim insufficient. (Id.) Here, Plaintiff’s description of "on the sidewalk at or near Tweedy Elementary School” is a description of where Plaintiff fell, not a complete omission of location. (Compendium, Exhibit A-2.) Plaintiff did not entirely omit the location of her injury.

City also argues that (1) the Claim did not fairly describe what the City did at the place of the incident, (2) the factual circumstances as set forth in the Claim did not correspond with the facts as testified to by Plaintiff at her deposition, and (3) the factual basis for recovery including condition of public property and the mechanism of injury were not fairly reflected in the Claim represented by Plaintiff. City’s contentions are not among the claim requirements enumerated in Gov. Code section 910. Plaintiff’s Claim demonstrates substantial compliance with the Torts Claim Act.

City failed to meet its burden of showing Plaintiff failed to comply with the Tort Claims Act. The burden does not shift to Plaintiff. City’s motion does not touch on the merits of Plaintiff’s claim under Gov. Code section 835.