Stensland v. Harding County – Liability for Dangerous Road Conditions

Government entities responsible for road maintenance owe a duty of care to ensure those roads are designed, constructed and maintained in such a way that they are reasonably safe for public use. roadclosed

Roadway designs in North Carolina need to adhere to the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Roadway Design Manual, which offers criteria ranging from designated speed (which takes into account functional classification, traffic volumes, terrain, etc.) to intersections to drainage ditches. The requirements for each element are highly specific, and agencies that fail to adhere to them may face a finding of negligence per se if someone is hurt in an accident as a result. That means the court could find the entity negligent as a matter of law.

However, negligence doesn’t necessarily equal liability. In order to prove an agency responsible to pay compensation for personal injury or wrongful death, one needs to show causation. That is, not only did the entity breach its duty of care to the plaintiff by failing to adhere to statutory guidelines, but that this breach proximately caused plaintiff’s injuries.

This was the problematic issue in Stensland v. Harding County, recently before the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Plaintiff’s driveway ran along a country road. During a spell of rain and snow in April 2009, plaintiff and his family were driving on that road when he noticed there was a hole in the road, with water inside the ditch. He stopped, got out of his car and took a closer look. He stomped on it, and a huge chunk of the road fell in, exposing the culvert underneath. He and his wife contacted the highway superintended to report the dangerous condition of the road.

The county responded by putting up signs warning of a washout. A “Road Closed” sign was placed on a type I barricade near plaintiff’s driveway. At some point, person or persons unknown moved that sign further west to the intersection. The county also put up a type I barricades that had orange cones on either side. An unknown individual also placed a delineator post in the middle of the washout location. This is despite the fact that these specific delineator posts have historically been used to mark the edge of the road.

About a month after contacting the county about the problem in the road, plaintiff was driving with his daughter when he had to slow down and drive on the opposite side of the road due to washboard conditions. He saw no sign warning him of a dangerous road condition. He saw the delineator post, but thought it indicated the edge of the road, rather than danger. He continued on and drove his car into the washed out section of the road that had been reported to the county. Plaintiff suffered injury to his left leg.

It was undisputed by county that it failed to comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This is a federal standard that defines how road managers across the nation are supposed to maintain and install traffic control devices on all public streets, highways, bikeways and private roads that are open to public travel. It’s published by the Federal Highway Administration.

Here, it was not a type I barricade but a type III barricade that was required for the situation, and there should have been a second road closed sign.

For this reason, when plaintiff sued the county for personal injury, he sought a summary judgment on the issue of negligence per se, meaning county was negligent as a matter of law. County argued it didn’t have to abide by the MUTCD because no federal funds were used to construct the road. Trial court sided with plaintiff on this issue. But he still had to prove causation.

The case went to trial on that issue. County argued plaintiff was contributorily negligent and there was an assumption of risk driving on that portion of road, having prior knowledge of a problem. Jurors agreed, and plaintiff was awarded no damages.

The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. Plaintiff argued he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the county had violated statute and had no excuse for that and thus “causation was not an issue.” But the court was clear: Violation of a statute on its own isn’t enough to prove a defendant liable to a plaintiff. Before a defendant can be ordered to pay damages, it has to be proven that defendant’s violation of duty was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Stensland v. Harding County, Nov. 24, 2015, South Dakota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Wood v. Wood – Suing a Spouse for Personal Injury in Motor Vehicle Crash, Nov. 24, 2015, Asheville Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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