Alleged Road Defect Case Rejected by Tennessee Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals recently overturned a trial court’s decision that a somewhat recently reconstructed road constituted a dangerous road condition. In Church v. Charles Blalock & Sons, Inc., No. E2014-02077-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 9, 2015), plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of two women who died in an automobile accident. The facts showed that a highway had been reconfigured to bypass a town. Before the construction, highway drivers had no stop signs and simply proceeded on a curvy road. The new configuration, which included a stop sign at a “T” style intersection and a subsequent turn, opened on July 13, 2009. When it opened, the new roadway had a stop sign, a white stop bar on the pavement, and a “stop ahead” sign.

After the road opened, the State learned that many drivers were failing to stop at the new sign. In an email from a TDOT engineer to superintendent of maintenance, the engineer said that rumble strips had been suggested as a possible solution at the intersection. Rumble strips were never added, but changes were made following an accident in October 2009. In December, a junction sign was added before the intersection; large “stop ahead” signs were placed 320 feet before the intersection on both sides of the road; a directional sign with an arrow was placed before the intersection; two larger stop signs were placed on both sides of the road; and a two-headed arrow sign was placed across from the intersection.

On January 23, 2010, the driver here failed to stop her car at the stop sign and instead immediately proceeded to the right. She entered the path of oncoming traffic, causing a collision which killed her and her passenger. The evidence suggested that this was most likely her first time to drive through the newly constructed intersection, as she had been recovering from a back surgery.

Plaintiffs brought their claims against the State under Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(J), which states that a claimant alleging dangerous road conditions on state maintained highways “must establish the foreseeability of the risk and notice given to the proper state officials at a time sufficiently prior to the injury for the state to have taken appropriate measures.” The trial court found the State to be 53% at fault here, holding that:

(1) the risk of drivers running the stop sign was foreseeable, (2) the State had sufficient advance notice to enable it to take appropriate measures, (3) the measures adopted by the State were insufficient to address the dangerous situation, (4) such lack of reasonable care by the State contributed to the cause of the accident and the resultant fatalities[.]

The trial court found that the State was negligent by only installing signs and not using rumble strips. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed.

The appellate court noted that while Tennessee statutes do not define “dangerous condition” as it relates to highways, the Tennessee Supreme Court has provided factors to be considered—“the physical aspects of the roadway, the frequency of accidents at that place in the highway, and the testimony of expert witnesses in arriving at this factual determination.” (internal citation omitted). In analyzing this case, the Court pointed out that while plaintiffs called several witnesses to testify about difficulty navigating the new roadway the first time they encountered it, only one of those witnesses had driven through it after the additional signage was added in December 2009. Further, though plaintiffs presented evidence regarding citations issued for failure to stop at the stop sign, “only one of the citations was issued after the new signs were installed[,]” and there was no evidence regarding whether this driver was confused by the new road or just not paying attention.

The Court also looked to the expert testimony offered at trial. Plaintiffs’ expert testified that the stop ahead signs, placed 320 feet before the intersection, were insufficient because they were too far from the actual stop signs. Plaintiffs’ expert said that if a car were traveling the speed limit it would take 240 feet to stop, and the stop ahead signs were thus in the wrong location. The Court rejected this argument, finding the additional space provided to be reasonable. Plaintiffs’ expert also asserted that rumble strips or additional warnings should have been continued for at least a year after the new intersection opened.

As to the failure to install rumble strips, TDOT employees testified that rumble strips were not required at any intersections and that there were no standards for using them at intersections, as such use was “infrequent.” The Court of Appeals found that “[a]lthough…locating rumble strips at the approach to the subject intersection might have been of benefit to some motorists, we also recognize that the State does not have a duty to make the intersection absolutely safe.” (internal citations and quotation omitted). “The fact that additional warning measures might have made the intersection safer does not necessarily establish that the intersection as it existed constituted a dangerous condition on the roadway.”

When considering the physical aspects of the highway, the Court noted that the T style intersection was chosen because it is the safest, that considerable additional signage had been added after the first accident occurred at the intersection, and that the State experts testified as to plenty of visibility upon approaching the intersection. Based on this evidence, the Court “conclude[d] that the proof presented at trial was insufficient to support the trial court’s finding that a dangerous condition existed at this intersection.” The Court further held that “the evidence preponderate[d] against the trial court’s determination that the risk involved herein was foreseeable or that notice was provided to the proper state officials at a time sufficiently prior to the injury for the State to have taken appropriate measures[.]” The Court found that the issuance of one citation after the additional signage was added was not enough to cause the State to foresee the probability of this accident. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment in favor of plaintiffs.

An important note for lawyers to take away from this case is to pay close attention to the timeline of both the facts surrounding your case and the evidence you plan to present. Here, plaintiffs had lots of evidence, but almost all of it dated to the time period before extensive additional signage was added to the allegedly dangerous intersection. Plaintiffs needed to focus on the condition of the intersection as it existed when the accident occurred, and thus should have focused on witnesses who would testify about the intersection after the signs were added. Because plaintiff only presented one witness and evidence about one citation after the signs were added, the Court found that there was no support for a dangerous road condition finding.