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When Is the State Liable for Dangerous Road Conditions?

Car accidents are not always solely the result of negligent driving. In many cases, defective road design or maintenance may contribute to an accident. Under Tennessee law, the state can be sued for “dangerous conditions on state maintained highways.” The burden of proof is on a plaintiff, however, to demonstrate the “foreseeability of the risk” to motorists and that state highway officials received “notice” of such conditions. In other words, the state does not have a duty to keep the roads “absolutely safe,” but it must repair any obvious hazards which might reasonably lead to an accident.

Court Overturns $467,000 Verdict Against the State

Recently the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned a trial judge’s decision holding the state partially responsible for a deadly traffic accident that took place on Old State Route 91 in Johnson County. The accident occurred in January 2010. The victims, a 68-year-old woman and her 65-year-old sister, were driving along the road when they reached the intersection of Old State Route 91 and New State Route 91. As vehicles travel northward on the Old Route, they proceed through a curve to reach the intersection, requiring vehicles to stop before turning right. The elder sister, who was driving, failed to heed the stop sign and the vehicle subsequently skidded into the intersection, hitting another car and killing both sisters.

The families of the victims later sued various parties associated with the maintenance of the road. Eventually these were consolidated into a single claim against the State of Tennessee. The crux of the plaintiffs’ case was the state should have installed rumble strips at the intersection. These strips help alert drivers of hazards. In this case, the plaintiffs said a rumble strip would have alerted the victim to stop at the intersection rather than continue into the intersection from the curve.

At trial, the plaintiffs presented a 2009 email from a Tennessee Department of Transportation engineer to his supervisor, in which he suggested “possibly adding rumble strips” to the intersection. The engineer noted “many vehicles” had been running the stop sign, indicating it was not sufficient to alert drivers. The engineer also said he was “concerned about a number of skid marks at the intersection.” Although the state did place additional signage at the intersection following the engineer’s report, it did not install any rumble strips.

The trial court determined this failure to install rumble strips was sufficient to hold the state partially responsible for the accident. The judge ultimately apportioned 47 percent liability to the state (the other 53 percent to the sister who was driving), and awarded total damages of about $467,000. The state appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the state it should not have been held even partially liable for the accident. While “additional warning measures might have made the intersection safer,” the appeals court observed, that does not prove the “intersection as it existed constituted a dangerous condition.” The Court said the additional signage was a more than adequate response to previous reports of problems at the intersection, and indeed, there were no reported accidents subsequently aside from the one at issue in this case.

Need a Personal Injury Attorney?

This case illustrates the difficulty of holding state officials responsible for dangerous road conditions. That is why, if you have been in a car accident, it is important you work with an experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today if you need to speak with someone right away.

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