- Similar to Slip and Fall injury lawsuits, motorists must prove “negligence” by establishing that the local government had a duty, did they fail this duty, what caused the failure, and was there actual damage or physical injury as a direct result of the roadway defect?
There are several classifications of roadway defects, including whether a road has been poorly maintained or whether a road has been poorly designed. Each brings its individual challenges, which is why engaging an experienced roadway defects lawyer is vital to the success when presenting a roadway defects lawsuit.
Motorists who are injured in a car accident often look to the other driver, the weather conditions, or themselves to blame for the accident. Many drivers, however, fail to consider that the very roads on which they were driving may have been poorly designed, poorly maintained, or may otherwise have been a major contributing cause of their accident. Such roadway defects include potholes, poorly maintained guardrails, poorly designed or maintained signage, or improper road maintenance. Injured parties are often shocked to discover that particular stretches of highway are more prone to accidents than others yet, due to misunderstandings regarding how roads are designed and built, injured parties frequently ignore roadway design and maintenance defects as a cause for their accident, and a potential basis of recovery.
Negligent Road Maintenance and Design
Roads are designed, built, and maintained by a plethora of different organizations, ranging from private entities, municipalities, counties, individual states or several states together, and, sometimes, even the federal government. Moreover, the design, ownership, and maintenance of roads can change over time, or change depending on where the road lies. For example, a road maintained by a city in one location may change into a road maintained by the county, or by the state, or by a different municipality entirely within a matter of feet. The same road running in opposite directions may be maintained by two different governmental entities—one, for example, maintains the southbound portion of the road, while another maintains the northbound. Quite frequently, these different entities are not in close communication when a road is changed: for example, when a new intersection is built, a new lamppost is installed, a road is widened, or even when it is routinely re-paved. As a result, inconsistent and sometimes dangerous conditions not originally intended can appear over time as roads are changed to accommodate changes in use. In addition, as cities grow and change, roads that were once owned by the state, county, or another city can come into the jurisdiction of a new city, sometimes even without the city’s knowledge.
Whether a road is defectively maintained, or defectively designed, litigants have an uphill road to climb to gain compensation from the appropriate government agency. Almost all roadway defect cases resulting from poor maintenance or design in Missouri rest on a theory of negligence. That is, the injured party must prove that the public entity responsible for designing and/or maintaining the road was legally negligent. To prove negligence, an injured party must show that the government entity had a duty to protect against the harm or injury actually suffered, that this duty was breached, that the breach was the cause of the injuries flowing from the accident, and that there were actual, physical damages.
Government Duty and Reasonable Care
The crux of defective roadway design or maintenance case in Missouri often turns on whether the government entity had a “duty” to prevent against the damages that occurred in the accident. Although it is clear that public entities have a general duty to maintain their roads, courts often apply a “reasonableness” standard to judge the extent of that duty. Resultingly, a city may be said to have a duty to exercise “reasonable care” to ensure that drivers and passengers utilizing its roads are not injured as a result of roadway defects.
Unfortunately, the definition of “reasonable care” is dependent on the specific circumstances of the roadway and the accident. If the case were to go to trial, “reasonable care” is a concept often determined by the judge or a jury. Consider two similar scenarios that would likely have very different outcomes: in one scenario, a motorist is injured as a result of a large pothole on a road. The pothole had been known about for several months and had been reported on numerous occasions to the city in charge of maintaining the road. In a second scenario, a motorist is injured as a result of a large pothole on a road that had appeared the day before the accident. In the first scenario—the case of a large pothole having existed for many months—it is quite likely that a judge or jury would determine that the city’s duty to exercise “reasonable care” over the maintenance of its roads would include repairing a well-known, dangerous pothole. In the second scenario—a recently formed pothole—it is unlikely that the city’s duty of “reasonable care” extends to immediately repairing all potholes immediately after they are discovered, because this may be a functionally impossible standard for the city to adhere to. In the first scenario, the injured party would successfully be able to show that the city had a duty of care that extended over the pothole while, in the second scenario, the injured party’s negligence claim would likely fail.
One technique that skilled attorneys use to evaluate the concept of duty with regards to roadway design and maintenance issues in Missouri is to consider whether the roads in question are compliant with several inter-related federal regulations: the standards set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (“AASHTO”), and the standards set by the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (“MUTCD”). Both bodies of regulations are highly technical, and specify, among many other things, basic regulations regarding roadways, such as the minimum width of a lane, the appropriate location and size of signage, and so on. Similarly, Missouri itself, via the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission, maintains a several-hundred-page manual detailing the process of designing, building, and maintaining roadways in Missouri called the Missouri Standard Specification for Highway Construction. If a roadway is not compliant with the AASHTO, MUTCD, and/or Missouri state regulations, and an accident occurs flowing from this error in design or maintenance, it is likely that a litigant could maintain a case against the government entity that designed or maintains the road by showing the existence of a duty imposed in this body of regulations.
Once a duty has been shown, the injured party must show that the public entity has breached this duty. In most roadway maintenance cases this is fairly simple: for example, in the above scenario, the city failed to repair the large pothole it had known about for many months. Such failure would constitute a breach of the city’s duty to maintain reasonable care over its roads. Once a breach of a duty is shown, causation (that is, that the poor design of the road actually caused the injury) must be shown, as well as actual, physical damages. Quite frequently, in the case of lawsuits for roadway maintenance or design issues, causation and damages are quite apparent once a duty and a breach of duty have been proven.
What is Sovereign Immunity?
One major caveat to this discussion of negligence is the unique nature of roadway maintenance and design cases. Unlike in almost all other personal injury cases resulting from an accident, in a roadway maintenance or design case, the injured party is suing a government entity, like a city, county, or the state. In general, all public entities in Missouri are barred from being sued by private parties (such as individual citizens) under a doctrine known as “sovereign immunity.” Under this legal precept, all lawsuits against municipal, county, state, or other associated entities are prevented, unless there exists a specific law permitting such suits. This is vastly and importantly different from lawsuits against private entities. For example, if an individual were to slip, fall, and be injured in a grocery store due to that store’s negligence, that individual would very likely be able to sue the storeowner for his or her injuries. If that same individual were to slip, fall, and be injured in a post office (owned and operated by the federal government), such a lawsuit would be barred by sovereign immunity, unless there existed a law specifically permitting such lawsuits.
How can a Private Individual sue a Missouri Government Entity for a Roadway Defect?
Luckily, Missouri does have such a carveout for roadway maintenance and design issues. Under Section 537.600 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, an injured plaintiff can sue the state of Missouri, the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission (“MoDOT”) or other governmental entities if that plaintiff can show that his or her injury “resulted from [a] dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the course of his employment created the dangerous condition or a public entity had actual or construction notice of the dangerous condition in sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measure to protect against the dangerous condition.” In short: a plaintiff must show that a “dangerous condition” exists, that the dangerous condition could foreseeably have resulted in the harm suffered, and that the dangerous condition was created as a result of a “negligent or wrongful act or omission” by a public employee or that a public entity had actual or construction notice of the condition. These standards are therefore not entirely dissimilar to the general negligence standards described above. To use the previous example: if a driver came across a pothole that had recently formed, it’s unlikely that sovereign immunity could be waived because the pothole was probably not created as a result of MoDOT’s negligence or omissions, and they are unlikely to have had actual or constructive notice within sufficient time to repair the pothole. However, if the pothole had been known about for many months, likely MoDOT or the equivalent agency either had actual knowledge (or should have had such knowledge), and had the opportunity to repair it but failed to do so.
Unfortunately, for many injured parties, Missouri law provides a “state of the art” defense that a municipality, county, or state can use to defend against roadway design defect claims, codified in Section 537.600(2) of the Missouri Revised Statutes. Under this defense, the public entity in charge of designing the road can bar itself from suit if it is able to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that “the alleged negligent, defective or dangerous design reasonably complied with highway and road design standards generally accepted at the time the road or highway was designed and constructed.” This means that, so long as a Missouri public entity can argue that they were reasonably following the standards of the time, they are absolved of liability, even if those standards were poor, and/or otherwise created a dangerous condition on the roads. This is true even if the plaintiff can show that the negligent design or the road or highway actually caused the injuries suffered.
For example, consider a driver who is struck head on by a bus traveling in the opposite lane of traffic. Among other arguments, the driver argues that she lacked sufficient line of sight to get out of the way of oncoming traffic because the curvature of the road was too abrupt given the speed limit. If the driver was unimpaired and following all traffic laws, she may have a strong argument that the road was in a “dangerous condition” given the circumstances of the accident. However, the city responsible for maintaining the road may be able to defend against this argument by showing that the road was designed in accordance with the standards appropriate to roads when it was first built. For example, the road might have been built at a time when vehicles were unable to accelerate to the same rate as vehicles are today, or when vehicles were significantly heavier, or otherwise materially differed in their function and makeup. Thus, even if the road is currently dangerous because of changes in cars, traffic patterns, traffic laws, driving habits, and so on, the city might be able to completely defend itself by pointing to this “state of the art” defense. These fact-specific arguments are often impossible for injured parties to learn of without the skill of an experienced attorney, and without a deep investigation into when the road was design and built, and the standards applicable to such roads at the time.
In addition, a history of accidents on the same stretch of road might illuminate that the roadway was defectively designed, and that the public entity in charge of the road was aware of this defect but chose not to repair it. For example, if drivers are routinely rear-ended at an intersection in which there is inadequate left-hand turn signage, and the city has been sued before over this issue (or perhaps has commissioned a study to investigate the dangers but chosen not to remedy the defect), an injured motorist may have a strong claim that the roadway was in a “dangerous condition,” though would still be required to argue against the public entity’s likely “state of the art” defense argument.
Rely on Our Experience
As may be obvious, cases against public entities for roadway design defects are very factually specific, requiring injured parties to investigate the circumstances and specific facts regarding the original design of roads, their history, and the public entity or entities currently involved in maintaining them. Skilled attorneys familiar with suing public entities and discovering often long-lost details of road design and construction are therefore essential in thoroughly investigating all of the rights that may be available to injured parties, and in obtaining a full recovery.
Please contact Thompson Law Office if you or someone you know has been involved in an accident involving roadway defects. Our experienced team of roadway defect attorneys will provide you with a free consultation to determine the best course of action for your lawsuit and help you receive the compensation you deserve.