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California transit agencies could face rough roads ahead, as the state Supreme Court seemed inclined Wednesday to hold them liable for injuries at bus stops located in dangerous places. Meeting in San Francisco, the high court’s only concern appeared to be a fear that a ruling against the Central Contra Costa Transit Authority could expose transit agencies statewide to excessive third-party liability from drivers who hit pedestrians using busy crosswalks to reach bus stops. “To accept your position,” Justice Marvin Baxter told the plaintiff’s lawyer, “would be to subject public entities to much more liability than private entities.” Justice Ming Chin chimed in by asking whether public entities should be held liable for all the bad drivers on the road. “There are still lots of crosswalks out there,” he said, “and they lead to somewhere.” Wednesday’s case was filed by Robert Bonanno, the guardian ad litem of Darlene Bonanno, a mentally handicapped woman who was seriously injured in 1993 while crossing a busy highway to reach a bus stop at the intersection of Pacheco Boulevard and DeNormandie Way near Martinez. In a chain reaction crash, a car parked at the crosswalk hit Bonanno after being struck from behind by a second vehicle. The trial court judge ruled that the Central Contra Costa Transit Authority owed Bonanno about $1.6 million in economic damages and $15,000 in non-economic damages. Under the state’s joint-and-several liability laws, Central Contra Costa Transit Authority was held responsible for the entire compensatory award, even though jurors found the agency only 1 percent at fault for the accident. On Wednesday, transit authority lawyer John Lynch, a partner at Low, Ball & Lynch, refused to concede that either the bus stop or the crosswalk was dangerous. He also denied liability on the transit agency’s behalf, even though Government Code Section 830 defines a dangerous condition as one that creates a substantial risk of injury even on adjacent property, such as a crosswalk. “The transit authority had no ownership or control over the crosswalk,” Lynch argued, saying that was, instead, under the county’s control. “What [the plaintiff is] trying to do here is hugely expand the definition of dangerous condition,” he added. “The potential limits are virtually unknown. There are thousands of bus stops in this state. How many are located next to crosswalks without traffic lights?” But, interjected Chief Justice Ronald George: “How many are this dangerous? We don’t know that, do we?” George also asked Lynch to explain how the situation in Bonanno’s case differs from that in Warden v. City of Los Angeles, 13 Cal.3d 297, the court’s own 1975 ruling that held that a dangerous condition may result from location alone — a submerged sewer pipe in that instance. Lynch argued that the case was distinguishable and had been “twisted” by his opponents to fit the current scenario. “Well,” George said, “I’d like to hear your clever explanation of why it doesn’t apply.” Said Lynch: “The CCCTA did not place the crosswalk at that location.” Then, Justice Chin asked, did the agency request that its bus stop be moved to another site? “No,” Lynch answered. David Baer, a Hanson, Bridgett, Marcus, Vlahos & Rudy partner who represented the San Mateo County Transit District and more than 200 other interested groups as amici curiae, fared no better than Lynch. Arguing that upholding the lower court could have a “very fundamental impact” on transit agencies, Baer was met by George. “What would that fundamental impact be?” he asked. “It might be positive” if bus stop improvements are made. In arguing that it wasn’t the transit agency’s decision to place the dangerous crosswalk where it did, Baer was blocked by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar. “But the transit district could move the bus stop,” she said. “And it ultimately did.” When he tried to invoke Seaber v. Hotel Del Coronado, 1 Cal.App.4th 481, a 1991 case in which San Diego’s Fourth District held a hotel not liable for the death of a pedestrian in an adjacent crosswalk, Werdegar spoke again. “You may be able to move a bus stop,” she said. “You may not be able to move a hotel.” Finally, George asked what Baer’s position would be if a bus stop was located adjacent to a deep, wide ditch that wasn’t transit authority property — would the agency have no control over that? “That is not what we’re talking about here,” Baer said. “I see no difference,” George responded. Working in Lynch’s and Baer’s favor, however, were Chin’s and Baxter’s concerns about third-party liability, as well as questions by Justice Janice Rogers Brown indicating some worries about holding transit authorities liable for crosswalks not in their direct control. “Wouldn’t anyone who’s crossing that crosswalk be at the same risk even if they were not going to the bus stop?” she asked Bonanno’s attorney, Oakland solo practitioner Ellen Lake. “Yes,” Lake admitted. “So,” Brown said, “why should the destination incur liability?” Brown later told Lake the crosswalk had functioned the way it should. “It created a traffic break,” she said. “The accident here occurred because someone failed to stop. The risk is the same even if more people crossed the street.” After the argument, Baer called control over the crosswalk the “central issue,” stating that transit authorities have no control over the placement of a dangerous crosswalk. “They can’t fix it. They can’t mitigate the danger,” he said. “They can just move away from it.” The court has 90 days to rule.

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