Two years ago, a popular 17-year-old senior at Greer High School left her home before dawn one Saturday morning and never came home. Her mother doesn’t know where her daughter was headed that morning, but her journey ended on State 414, when her vehicle barreled across an oncoming lane of traffic near Burrell Road and North Greenville University. They don’t understand why she didn’t stay in her lane. What they do know, according to Greenville Online, is that her vehicle launched off the road and fell about 10 feet down an embankment before slamming into a cluster of trees. The teen died of blunt force trauma at the scene.
Now, her mother has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Transportation, alleging her daughter’s life may have been saved if there had been a guardrail or some other type of barrier at that curve. State officials knew one was needed at that location, the teen’s mother says, and failed to take action. In fact, there is still no guardrail at the site to this day.
Administrators of the state declined to comment, citing a pending investigation. A report from the state highway patrol revealed the teen was not under the influence of any alcohol or drugs, and she’d been wearing her seat belt at the time of the fatal crash. She was, however, reportedly traveling 60 mph in a 35-mph zone.
There are a few things to note here. The first is that poor highway design is responsible for a huge number of fatal wrecks every year. The Transportation Construction Coalition reported not long ago that road-related conditions contribute to more than half of all deadly motor vehicle accidents annually and cost an estimated $218 billion. By comparison, alcohol-related crashes cost us nationally about $130 billion.
The second is that lawsuits against government agencies for failures to address these shortcomings can be challenging – but they aren’t impossible. Some roadways are maintained by businesses or private individuals, and in these cases, lawsuits for negligent design and maintenance can continue as any other negligence lawsuit would. However, the vast majority of crashes happen on public roads that are maintained by the state or some other government agency. Per the doctrine of sovereign immunity, a government usually can’t be sued unless it first consents to the lawsuit. South Carolina’s waiver of immunity can be found in S.C. Code of Laws Chapter 78, Section 15-78-20. The legislature has held that while total government immunity is not desirable, limitations on these actions are necessary.
Conditions that may be indicators of negligent road design or maintenance include:
- Lack of signs
- Poor drainage
- Lack of adequate warning of certain hazards
- Non-functioning or malfunctioning traffic signals
- Missing or faded lane markers
- Burned out street lights
- Uneven pavement
- Road debris
- Poorly maintained bridges
- Lack of guardrails or barriers
Finally, a consideration for this case that arises in many others: comparative negligence. In South Carolina, comparative negligence – which is the extent to which the plaintiff/decedent is partially negligent for his or her own injuries or death – is not a basis for dismissing the case. (The same is not true in North Carolina, unfortunately.) However, even in South Carolina, one’s overall damages award will be reduced in proportion to one’s negligence. In this case, speeding was determined to have been a factor in this crash, and that could be asserted as a form of comparative negligence. However, that won’t absolve the state government agency for poor highway design, since speeding is considered a reasonably foreseeable occurrence on public roads – and all the more reason a guardrail may have been necessary at this location.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Grieving mother sues SCDOT, Oct. 17, 2016, By Michael Burns, Greenville Online
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Sims v. Kia Motors of America – Expert Witness Testimony Fell Short in Car Crash Case, Oct. 13, 2016, Greenville Car Accident Lawyer Blog