Court Finds Exit Ramp Roadway Meets Safety Standards

In Elliott v. State, No. M2016-00392-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 13, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed the Claims Commission’s finding that plaintiff failed to prove that “the State was negligent in the design, construction, or maintenance of [a] roadway.”

Plaintiff had a car accident on an exit ramp that was designed and maintained by the State. The road was wet from an earlier rain, and the road on the ramp “transition[ed] from asphalt to concrete.” Plaintiff asserted that the road had deteriorated at this transition point, and that “this deterioration caused her vehicle to fly off the roadway and roll down an incline.” Plaintiff pointed out that the State had patched the ramp by putting asphalt into holes. She claimed that “the State was negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the roadway and in failing to erect a proper barrier at the edge of the road to prevent vehicles from rolling down the hill.”

At the Claims Commission trial, plaintiff presented evidence that the police department “had worked multiple single-car wrecks at this location in rainy weather conditions,” and that she did not receive a citation for her driving and her car was in proper working condition. Plaintiff also had an expert testify that he visited the site and saw “some irregular pavement or…pavement distress” at the transition area. When plaintiff’s expert was asked whether “it is appropriate to patch the expansion joints with…asphalt,” he said:

It’s one way that you could do it. Obviously, you could also repair it or put a total overlay. I did not witness when I was out there a total overlay, which would have given them a more uniform surface, but you were trying to patch problems or rough spots.

The expert stated that in his opinion, “the irregular pavement at the expansion joints was a ‘defect’ in the road and a ‘major cause of this accident.’”

The State also presented expert testimony, asserting that “the roadway in question has between 27 to 35 feet of ‘clear zone’ available for an errant vehicle to recover,” and that such a design was “in line with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official’s safety standards.” Based on the evidence presented, the Claims Commission found that plaintiff did not show that the State had been negligent in the design, construction or maintenance of the roadway, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Claims asserting negligence by the State in the construction or maintenance of a roadway fall under Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(1). When analyzing these claims, “courts apply the traditional principles of the law of negligence.” “The State does not have a duty to make its roadways absolutely safe,” but instead is held to a standard of “reasonableness.” (internal citations omitted).

Here, the Court agreed with the Commission that there was no factual proof establishing negligence. The Court reasoned:

Although Claimant’s expert testified that the bumpy and irregular pavement constituted a “defect” in the roadway, Claimant failed to present evidence showing that this defect was caused by the negligent design, construction, or inspection of the exit ramp. On the other hand, the State’s expert testified that the exit ramp was designed and constructed in accordance with the industry standards. Further, Claimant did not present evidence showing that the maintenance of the exit ramp was performed in an unreasonable manner. To the contrary, Claimant’s expert testified that the use of bituminous asphalt was an acceptable method of patching the concrete expansion joints.

Accordingly, judgment for the State was affirmed.

In this case, plaintiff’s expert testimony did not go far enough to support her case. Although the expert testified that the irregular road was a defect, he did not connect that defect to any action by the State. Further, plaintiff’s case was impacted significant her expert agreed that the asphalt patching was an acceptable way to maintain the road. His testimony that there was a better, safer way to maintain the road was simply not enough to establish negligence.