Road Injury Prevention Litigation Journal
Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.
August 1, 1998
TranSafety, Inc.
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Summary Judgment Reversed in Minnesota Edge Drop-Off Case

A motorist who pulled onto a highway shoulder found it was too narrow for his truck. When the motorist tried to re-enter the highway, his tires caught on a steep drop-off at the edge of the pavement; he received injuries in the resulting rollover. The motorist sued, and the trial court granted the state's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the state had no duty to warn because it had no notice of a dangerous condition. The appeals court reversed and remanded, finding a material issue of fact as to whether the state created the dangerous condition, and thus had a duty to warn.

THE CRASH

On September 3, 1983, Gerald Holmquist (Holmquist) drove his truck westbound on Highway 95 in Benton County, Minnesota. It was late at night, foggy and rainy, with limited visibility. After Holmquist crossed the bridge over the St. Francis River, he tried to pull his truck onto the shoulder. Since there was not enough space on the shoulder for his truck, he tried to return to the highway. The truck's tires caught on the pavement edge, and the truck rolled down a steep embankment.

The shoulder width along Highway 95 varied from four to five feet on the east side of the St. Francis River bridge to about one and one-half feet west of the bridge. West of the bridge there was a dropoff of three to five inches at the shoulder's edge. The ditch slopes on the east side of the river were gradual, but those west of the river were steep. No signs were posted to indicate that the shoulder narrowed west of the bridge.

TRIAL COURT DECISION

Holmquist sued the State of Minnesota (State) in the District Court, Benton County to recover for his injuries. The State moved for summary judgment. Because it had no notice of a dangerous condition, the State argued it had no duty to warn motorists of the narrow shoulder and steep dropoff. The trial court determined the State was entitled to discretionary immunity and granted the State's motion.

APPEALS COURT DECISION

Holmquist argued the trial court erred in determining that the State had discretionary immunity. He also argued the State was not entitled to discretionary immunity if the State created the dangerous condition. He further claimed faulty construction caused the dangerous condition.

Contending that placing signs on a highway is a discretionary function immune from liability, the State submitted an affidavit from the Minnesota Department of Transportation's operations engineer. This affidavit stated:

Nothing in either the MUTCD [Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices] or the MMUTCD [Minnesota Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices] suggests that any type of signs [is] necessary when the shoulders of a road become more narrow. . . . If such a sign were placed, it would be an exercise of discretion by the District Traffic Engineer. . . . A 'no shoulder' sign placed where there are narrow shoulders is not accurate and might mislead drivers. . . . Further, hundreds or even thousands of signs would need to be placed in order to ensure uniformity. It is already evident to drivers that the shoulders are narrow, without the need for signs.

In his review of crash records for the area, the State engineer found a "low" rate of only one crash on that mile of highway during the previous five years. The crash involved a motorist who hit an animal. The witness said, "A traffic engineer would not place a 'no shoulders' sign on a road due to such an accident."

Holmquist's expert, a traffic engineering consultant, stated in his affidavit:

[T]he dramatic change from wide shoulders and gradual sloping ditches to virtually no shoulder and a sudden steep ditch creates a pit-fall or a trap for a motorist. . . . [T]his change in the roadway is dangerous and . . . the traveling public should be warned of it. This danger is compounded by the fact that there is a drop of three to five inches at the edge of the pavement. Because of this drop-off, a driver whose wheel drops over the edge of the surfaced portion of the road is not likely to recover. . . . [T]his situation is hazardous and . . . a good and reasonable engineering practice would require a warning sign to apprise the public of the existence of these hazards.

The consultant showed the court an example of "no shoulder" signs on another highway in Minnesota and recommended the same type of sign for Highway 95 at the St. Francis River bridge. He stated that the need for signs on Highway 95 was greater, since "the change from wide shoulders to no shoulders is less visible on Highway 95 because it is somewhat camouflaged by the existence of the bridge."

In its memorandum granting summary judgment, the trial court noted:

[T]he State did not have a duty to warn of these conditions by signing unless it was on notice, actual or constructive, of such condition. Since the State had no such prior knowledge . . . the State was under no duty to warn and summary judgement in favor of the State is therefore appropriate.

Analyzing whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment, the appeals court stated, "Discretionary immunity must be narrowly construed in light of the fact that it is an exception to the general rule of governmental liability. . . . A discretionary act is one which requires a balancing of complex and competing factors at the planning, rather than the operational, stage of development."

In its review of Minnesota case law, the court found that "a duty to warn arises only if the municipality has actual knowledge or constructive notice of alleged roadway defects or dangerous conditions. . . . [T]he general rule was inapplicable if the 'defect * * * is one which [the municipality] created.'" Larson v. Township of New Haven, Olmstead County, 282 Minn. 447, 165 N.W.2d 547 (1969). Moreover, the court added "'that if, by reason of peculiar facts or circumstances, a pitfall, trap, or snare dangerous to a traveler proceeding with reasonable care is created in respect to a street, a municipality owes a duty to exercise reasonable care to warn or otherwise protect such traveler from the resulting danger.' Mix v. City of Minneapolis, 219 Minn. 389, 395, 18 N.W.2d 130, 134."

The appeals court concluded that a jury might consider the narrowing of the shoulder from the east side to the west side of the St. Francis bridge combined with the existence of a three-inch to five-inch dropoff at the edge of that narrowed shoulder a "pitfall, trap, or snare" that required proper warning signs.

The State also contended that pulling a vehicle onto the shoulder was not an "ordinary use" of the highway. The appeals court disagreed, maintaining the State should foresee circumstances could cause a driver to use the shoulder. The court added, "Further, the alleged dangerous condition need not be directly on the traveled portion of a roadway, only near enough to create a danger. See Mix v. City of Minneapolis, 219 Minn. 389, 395, 18 N.W.2d 130, 134-35 (1945)."

The appeals court concluded, "Because there is a material issue of fact as to whether the State created a pitfall, trap or snare when it abruptly narrowed the width of a highway shoulder, thereby giving rise to a duty to place appropriate warning signs, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment."

The Court of Appeals of Minnesota reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case for trial on July 6, 1987. Because the appeals court determined that summary judgment was inappropriate, it did not address Holmquist's argument regarding faulty construction.

[For further reference, see Gerald Holmquist v. State of Minnesota, Court of Appeals of Minnesota, July 6, 1987.]

Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.



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