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California’s “Freedom to Walk Act”: How Decriminalizing Jaywalking Could Affect Premise Liability Cases

Recently, a California Court of Appeal took up the issue of whether the owner of a residential condominium complex owed a duty to provide adequate onsite parking spots at the complex to prevent visitors from having to park across the street. Issakhani v. Shadow Glen Homeowners Association, Inc. — Cal.Rptr.3d —- (Cal. Ct. App., Apr. 30, 2021, No. B301746) 2021 WL 1711584. The court answered “no” to that question, based, in part, on an assumption that crossing the street is a known and obvious danger.

As a general rule, a landowner has a duty to maintain their property in such a manner so as to avoid exposing lawful visitors to unreasonable risks of injury on the property. However, in some instances, a duty will not be enforced against the landowner if a visitor fails to avoid an open and obvious danger that causes them injury on the land. The Issakhani case is illustrative to this point.

In Issakhani, the plaintiff was attempting to visit her friend, after dark, at the friend’s condominium complex. The plaintiff drove around the parking lot of the complex but there were only six visitor parking spaces, none of which were available. The plaintiff resorted to parking across from the complex on the other side of a five-lane street. She attempted to walk across the street, but instead of crossing at the cross-walk “several hundred feet away,” she jaywalked and was hit by a car. The plaintiff sued the complex arguing that it had a duty to have adequate on-site parking available.

On appeal from an order granting summary judgment in favor of the condominium complex, the Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the condominium complex had no duty to provide sufficient on-site parking spaces to visitors. In reaching this holding, the court surveyed California cases which grappled with issues of whether businesses owe a duty to provide on-site parking to prevent persons from having to cross streets and whether businesses owe a duty to not have off-site parking lots that require persons to cross streets to get to their destination. In both situations, California case precedent holds that there is no duty.

Importantly, a common theme connected all of the cases relied upon by the Issakhani court: each were based upon the general principal that a street presents an obvious danger, which precludes a finding of duty under the Rowland factors. The Rowland factors, which are used to analyze whether a duty should be imposed, are as follows: (1) the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; (2) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; (3) the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; (4) the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; (5) the policy of preventing future harm; (6) the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; and (7) the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.” Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 113.

In considering the Rowland factors, the Issakhani court found that while it may be foreseeable that someone who parked offsite might be injured while crossing the street, “a landowner who does no more than site and maintain [an offsite] parking lot that requires invitees to cross a public street to reach the landowner’s premises does not owe a duty to protect those invitees from the obvious dangers of the public street.” Accordingly, because the plaintiff failed to avoid the obvious risks associated with jaywalking, she was prevented from recovering damages for her injuries.

However, the “Freedom to Walk Act,” a proposed new law pending in the California Assembly, might change the legal assumption that the street is an obviously dangerous place. See California Assembly Bill 1238. According to the Assembly Committee on Transportation, crossing streets, and jaywalking in particular, is “not inherently dangerous” at all. To quote the Transportation Committee analysis, “[m]id-block pedestrian crossing (i.e. ‘jaywalking’) is a commonsense, everyday behavior that shouldn’t lead to a confrontation with police.” (https://atrn.assembly.ca.gov/sites/atrn.assembly.ca.gov/files/AB%201238.pdf).

If passed, the analysis and outcome of cases like Issakhani, which would ordinarily prevent injured plaintiffs from recovering damages against landowners due to the “obvious” dangers of crossing the street, could be different. In turn, this could require businesses to take precautions to ensure that their invitees never have to cross a street to visit them.

*At the time of publication of this posting, Assembly Bill 1238 has recently passed the Assembly Transportation Committee and is making its way through the Assembly.*

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