HUCKABEE v. William Appleton, Jr., Defendant, Cross-Defendant, and Respondent.

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Court of Appeal, First District, Division 1, California.

Cleopatra HUCKABEE, et al., Plaintiffs, v. COUNTY OF SONOMA, Defendant, Cross-Complainant, and Appellant, William Appleton, Jr., Defendant, Cross-Defendant, and Respondent.


Decided: February 14, 1983

John D. O'Connor, Patrick J. Hogan, Tarkington & Carey, San Francisco, for defendant, cross-complainant, appellant. Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold, Paul B. Lahaderne, San Francisco, for defendant, cross-defendant, respondent.

The several plaintiffs commenced an action for damages against defendants William H. Appleton, Jr., County of Sonoma, and others, for the wrongful death of one Max Huckabee.   Summary judgment was thereafter entered by the superior court in favor of defendant (and cross-defendant) Appleton and against the several plaintiffs, and defendant (and cross-complainant) County of Sonoma.   The County of Sonoma has appealed from the summary judgment.   None of the plaintiffs has so appealed.

The facts before the superior court on the motion for summary judgment may reasonably be condensed to the following.

 An improved Petaluma Hill Road was owned and maintained by the County of Sonoma.   Curtis Drive was a private road, owned by defendant Appleton, which connected with Petaluma Hill Road, forming a “T” intersection.   Abutting Curtis Drive was the land of one Brandenburg upon which, near or at the intersection of the private road with Petaluma Hill Road, was a large hedge, a mailbox, and a utility pole.   An affiant concluded * that such condition of the Brandenburg property made it difficult for one driving on Curtis Drive and approaching the intersection, to observe traffic coming from the left on Petaluma Hill Road.

Uncontroverted evidence, however, disclosed a painted line, or “fog stripe,” on Petaluma Hill Road separating its surfaced, or traveled, portion from its shoulder.   The nearest portion of the Brandenburg hedge was at least 15 feet from that painted dividing line.  (It follows that for at least 15 feet between Petaluma Hill Road and Curtis Drive the hedge did not obscure from view vehicles coming from the left on Petaluma Hill Drive.)

No warning, stop or other traffic sign had been placed on Curtis Drive at any point, nor was there any stop line or crosswalk painted at any location thereon.

On the early morning (6:00 a.m.) of the day of the accident, decedent Max Huckabee on Petaluma Hill Road and one Cabral on Curtis Drive, were approaching the intersection in their motor vehicles.   While so approaching the intersection Cabral, according to his declaration, had difficulty obtaining a clear view of Petaluma Hill Road to his left because of the obscuring improvements of the Brandenburg property.  (At this point an evidentiary conflict existed as to whether Cabral stopped and looked to his left before entering the intersection, or drove without so stopping, or looking, into the intersection.   The County of Sonoma cites this circumstance as the existence of a “material factual dispute ․ as to whether Cabral brought his vehicle to a stop before entering the intersection, and as to whether he sufficiently looked both ways.”   We find the point to be of no relevance to the issues of the appeal, and therefore of no materiality.)

In any event, Cabral proceeded onto Petaluma Hill Road where his vehicle collided with that of the decedent Max Huckabee, proximately causing that person's death.

 The County of Sonoma's first contention, as we understand it, is that Appleton, the owner of the private road, was under a legal duty to place a warning, stop, or other traffic sign or painted marking, upon it, thus to warn its users of the intersection's dangerous condition.

The contention is refuted by Vehicle Code section 21465 which, as relevant, provides:

“No person shall place, maintain, or display ․ in view of, any highway any unofficial sign, signal, device, or marking, ․ which attempts to direct the movement of traffic․”

 Instead, the placement of such a sign, signal, device, or marking attempting to direct movement of traffic, is the responsibility of local authorities such as a county, whether at the entrance to private roads or elsewhere.   See Vehicle Code sections 21354, 21355, 21356, 21360, and 21361.   These several statutes, and others, manifest a legislative purpose and state policy, that intersecting streets, highways, and roads not be cluttered, or marked, with unofficial traffic signs of varying message content, clarity and degrees of maintenance.

 A closely related contention of the County of Sonoma is that generally the owner of a private road owes a duty of care to maintain it free of unreasonable risks to users of the road.   The contention is probably a correct statement of the law, but the duty of care extends only to the private road and not to adjacent property over which the private road's owner has no control.  (Corcoran v. City of San Mateo, 122 Cal.App.2d 355, 359, 265 P.2d 102.)   And as to attempts to warn or otherwise direct the movement of motor vehicle traffic, Vehicle Code section 21465, as noted, forbids it.

Moreover, Vehicle Code section 21804 requires that:  “The driver of a vehicle about to enter or cross a highway from any public or private property, or from an alley shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching on the highway.”  (Emphasis added.)  “ ‘It is axiomatic that in the absence of conduct to put him on notice to the contrary a person is entitled to assume that others will not act negligently or unlawfully․’ ”  (Hunter v. Mohawk Petroleum Corp., 51 Cal.2d 439, 441, 334 P.2d 193, disapproved on other grounds in Taylor v. Centennial Bowl, Inc., 65 Cal.2d 114, 122, 52 Cal.Rptr. 561, 416 P.2d 793.)

 And finally, even were the statutes silent, we should be impelled to conclude that the County of Sonoma produced no substantial evidence from which a trier of fact, court or jury, might reasonably find a dangerous condition requiring a warning on either Curtis Drive, or the adjoining Brandenburg property.   The existence of a mailbox and utility pole, of themselves, manifestly did not create such a condition.   And otherwise, as noted, persons entering upon Petaluma Hill Road had a clear view of approaching traffic from the left for 15 feet or more before reaching its traveled surface.   Few intersections of built-up metropolitan areas offer such a view of oncoming cross-wise traffic.   And whether such substantial evidence existed on the summary judgment proceedings is a question of law, not of fact.  (See Grainger v. Antoyan, 48 Cal.2d 805, 807, 313 P.2d 848.   So also is the question whether defendant Appleton had a duty to post a warning, stop, or other traffic sign on his private road.  Harris v. De La Chapelle, 55 Cal.App.3d 644, 648, 127 Cal.Rptr. 695.)

Accordingly no merit is discerned in the County of Sonoma's appeal.

Other express, and perhaps implied, contentions of the County of Sonoma have become moot.

The summary judgment against the County of Sonoma, and in favor of defendant Appleton, is affirmed.


FOOTNOTE.   To the extent that an affidavit consists of conclusions of law, or conclusions of fact, it will not satisfy the requirement of a triable issue of fact, or substantial evidence, for a summary judgment.  (de Echeguren v. de Echeguren, 210 Cal.App.2d 141, 147, 26 Cal.Rptr. 562;  Weichman v. Vetri, 100 Cal.App.2d 177, 179, 223 P.2d 228.)

ELKINGTON, Associate Justice.

RACANELLI, P.J., and HOLMDAHL, J., concur.