Irma Yolanda Munoz Soto sued Union Pacific Railroad Company and two of its employees, Scott King and Robert Finch (collectively Union Pacific parties), for wrongful death (premises liability and general negligence) after Soto’s 16-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a freight train on an at-grade railroad crossing in Santa Clarita. The court granted the Union Pacific parties’ motion for summary judgment, concluding as to Soto’s premises liability claim Union Pacific had no duty to remedy a dangerous condition because it did not own or control the railroad crossing. As to Soto’s negligence claim, the court ruled Soto could not establish that Union Pacific employees had negligently operated the train.
On appeal from the judgment entered after the motion was granted, Soto contends she raised triable issues of material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment.
A motion for summary judgment is properly granted only when “all the papers submitted show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).)
One who owns, possesses or controls land has a duty to act reasonably to protect others from a dangerous condition on the property. (Alcaraz v. Vece (1997) 14 Cal.4th 1149, 1162 (Alcaraz); see Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a) [imposing liability for failure to exercise “ordinary care or skill in the management” of property].)
The “‘crucial element’” for imposing a duty in such circumstances is control (Alcaraz, at p. 1160 [“‘[w]hoever controls the land is responsible for its safety’”]), the rationale being that whoever has the means to control the property can take steps to prevent the harm. (See Salinas v. Martin (2008) 166 Cal.App.4th 404, 414 [quoting Alcaraz]; Martinez v. Bank of America (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 883, 892 [landlord liability for dangerous condition on property occupied by tenant depends upon landlord’s degree of control; “‘the landlord must also have the opportunity and the ability to eliminate the dangerous condition being created by the tenant’”]; cf. Public Utilities Com. v. Superior Court (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 364, 378 (Millan) [“control” in the context of premises liability depends on whether the defendant had the “power to prevent, remedy or guard against the dangerous condition”]; see generally Preston v. Goldman (1986) 42 Cal.3d 108, 119 [“we have placed major importance on the existence of possession and control as a basis for tortious liability for conditions on the land”].)
Conversely, “[a] defendant cannot be held liable for a defective or dangerous condition of property it did not own, possess or control.” (Isaacs v. Huntington Memorial Hospital (1985) 38 Cal.3d 112, 125; accord, Cody F. v. Falletti (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 1232, 1241 (Cody F.) [“[t]he law does not impose responsibility where there is no duty because of the absence of a right of control”]; cf. Alcaraz, supra, 14 Cal.4th at p. 1161 [“[D]efendant could not escape liability merely by establishing that . . . a neighbor, rather than the defendant, actually held title to the land containing the dangerous condition. As long as the defendant exercised control over the land, the location of the property line would not affect the defendant’s potential liability”].)
When the evidence concerning control is undisputed, as here, the question of duty remains a legal question de novo. (See Kesner v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132, 1142 [“‘[d]uty is a question of law for the court, to be reviewed de novo on appeal’”] Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764, 770 [same]; cf. Alcaraz, supra, 14 Cal.4th at p. 1162 & fn. 4 [although duty is a question of law, when evidence concerning control is in conflict, summary judgment is improper].)
Union Pacific unquestionably had a duty of care to operate its trains safely. (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a); see Kesner v. Superior Court, supra, 1 Cal.5th at p. 1142 [“‘California law establishes the general duty of each person to exercise, in his or her activities, reasonable care for the safety of others’”].)
Although the Callifornia Court of Appeal cannot, and neither can I, overstate the tragic scope of Soto’s loss, based on the evidence and governing law, the California Court of Appeal affirms.
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