Wuthrich v. King County – Government Duty to Maintain Roadways in Safe Condition

Roadside vegetation can make travel a bit more pleasant with beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, depending on where it is an how large it is, it can also create a significant hazard to motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. bushroad1

The responsibility for maintenance of overgrown vegetation can be two-fold: The government and the property owner. The government has a duty to make sure the roadways are safe, and that means making sure drivers can see signs, oncoming traffic and other important road features. There is also the duty of the property owner to make sure overgrown bushes, trees or grass on their property isn’t impeding the roadway or obstructing the vision of drivers or other travelers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Safety Administration encourages roadway agencies to develop roadside vegetation management plans that clearly define what has to be done at each location. That means making sure there is:

  • Sign visibility
  • Clear sight lines
  • Proper drainage
  • Road sign visibility
  • Making sure roadside trees don’t pose a hazard by creating a “clear zone”
  • Clearing winter snow and ice from trees that overhang the roadway

In the recent case of Wuthrich v. King County, the Washington Supreme Court was asked whether a local county government was properly granted summary judgment in a case where it faced allegations of liability for overgrown blackberry bushes that obstructed a driver’s view just before a collision with a motorcyclist.

According to the car accident lawsuit, plaintiff was operating his motorcycle on a two-lane road when he approached an intersection. He did not have a stop sign in his direction. However, traffic at the cross street did have a stop sign. As fate would have it, a driver was approaching from the cross street. By her own testimony, the driver said she did stop at the sign. She looked both ways. But she couldn’t really see to her left. She inched a little farther forward, but it was still tough because of the overgrown bush blocking her path. She proceeded anyway.

Both the motorcyclist and the driver say they didn’t see each other until the point of impact. The motorcyclist suffered severe injuries as a result of the crash.

He later filed a lawsuit against both the driver of the car as well as the county. Against the car driver, he alleged negligence. Against the county, he alleged failure to address hazardous conditions on the roadside.

The county argued in a motion for summary judgment that it had no duty to fix naturally occurring roadside vegetation hazards and that even if it did, this breach wasn’t the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. Trial court agreed and granted summary judgment.

On appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, this ruling was reversed. The state high court pointed out that first of all, the case law upon which defendants relied in this case had been challenged when state lawmakers passed statutes that waived sovereign immunity for municipalities. And to the extent courts were still relying on those old cases, the court stated explicitly that they were, “No longer good law.”

The court ruled plaintiff had presented enough evidence that county had breached its duty of care to survive summary judgment before trial. The case was remanded back to the lower court for further proceedings.

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

Additional Resources:

Wuthrich v. King County, Jan. 28, 2016, Washington Supreme Court

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Steep Pavement Edge Drop-Off Cited in Accident Lawsuit Against DOT, Jan. 30, 2016, Asheville Accident Lawyer Blog

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