City of South San Francisco Settles Wrongful Death Lawsuit Caused by Dangerous Condition of Public Property

court houseI recently represented a family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of South San Francisco and a private parking lot operator, Park SFO. The lawsuit stemmed out of the death of the adult sibling of six brothers and sisters. This wonderful family was devastated by the death of the sibling. The decedent was a sixty-three year old landscaper, who died on premises owned by the City and leased to a private company which operated an airport parking garage. The case involved interesting legal questions about the legal responsibilities of landlords and tenants for the safe conditions of properties they own, lease or control.

The incident occurred at the outdoor parking lot of Park SFO. The site was formerly a shipyard in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The shipyard used floating cement piers to close off the shipyard to create dry docks to do ship repairs. After the shipyard shut down, these piers became permanent fixtures which were owned by the City of South San Francisco, and later leased to Park SFO.

The cement piers had openings which connected to the bay. These openings were covered with plywood. Over time, vegetation grew over the plywood and it became rotted and weak. In March, 2012, the decedent was working as a landscaper out on one of these piers when he stepped onto one of these deteriorated pieces of plywood. The plywood broke and he fell into a hole leading into the San Francisco Bay, causing him to drown.

In the course of the lawsuit, a dispute arose between the City of South San Francisco and Park SFO as to who was responsible for maintaining the cement pier where the accident occurred. The City admitted owning the property but claimed that the pier was part of the lease which it granted Park SFO to operate its parking lot. Park SFO claimed that this area was specifically excluded from the lease. Unfortunately, the lease was not clear as to whether the area was or was not included within the leased premises.

The law clearly holds that a landowner has a responsibility to maintain in a safe condition property that it owns (Cole v Town of Los Gatos (2012) 2015 Cal. App. 4th 749). This applies to public entities as well as private individuals. The law also applies to tenants with regard to the land being leased. Additionally, however a landowner, or a tenant may be responsible for maintaining in a safe condition property that it does not own or lease if it exercises control over the premises (Alcarez v Vece (1997) 14 Cal. 4th 1149).

Therefore, if I could prove that Park SFO, had control over the area, I could establish responsibility on the part of the parking lot operator even if the cement piers were not part of its leased premises. In order to prove this, I obtained aerial photographs of the accident site which went back to the 1950’s and hired an aerial expert to help interpret the photographs for me. The photographs showed that when Park SFO was developing the parking lot its contractors placed equipment on the piers and did other modifications to them. In particular, the aerial photographs showed that the plywood covers were not over the holes when Park SFO entered into its lease with the City and were put over the holes sometime during the construction of the parking lot. Thus, the photographs were able to prove what no witness could remember- that the covers were put on during the construction of the parking lot, and thereby establishing that Park SFO exercised control over the area. This was the key to holding Park SFO and the City of South San Francisco responsible for this tragic death.

As an Alameda personal injury lawyer, I have represented numerous individuals and families in claims against public entities, such as cities, counties and the State of California, and against private companies for dangerous conditions of property. These cases are always a challenge, but hard work and knowing where to find the critical evidence, such as the aerial photographs in this case, helps me obtain justice for my clients.

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