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Road Management & Engineering Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
March 1, 1997
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Texas Liable for Injuries Caused by Rotating Traffic Light

Luana McKinney suffered injuries when another vehicle struck hers as she drove through an intersection where a green light appeared to confront drivers traveling both directions. She sued the State of Texas for negligence and premise liability. When the 23rd District Court found in her favor, the State appealed. In its decision, the Court of Appeals held: (1) the State had liability for a dangerous condition created by the traffic signal and (2) introduction of evidence concerning subsequent remedial measures by the State was not harmful to the judgment in this case.

The Collision

Driving south on Highway 288 on the morning of October 27, 1989, Luana McKinney crossed Highway 322 at an intersection controlled by traffic signals. Danielle Mitchell was traveling west on Highway 322; at the intersection of the two highways, her vehicle struck McKinney s. Mitchell later testified that she had stopped for a red light at the intersection and then proceeded on a green. A witness driving southbound behind McKinney testified that McKinney had a green light when she entered the intersection at 30 to 40 miles per hour. McKinney did not stop or slow before driving into the intersection.

District Court Judgment

In suing the State, McKinney argued the traffic light at the site of the collision was misaligned; and the misalignment caused the collision. Specifically, because of the misalignment drivers in both the southbound lane of Highway 288 and in the westbound lane of Highway 322 reasonably believed that they simultaneously had a green light.

Although the State knew the contractor used a collar that did not meet State specifications to attach the mast arm to the supporting pole at this intersection, the State approved the signal installation. The collar was too large, improperly shaped, and did not have an anti-rotation pin. Two months before McKinney s collision, a State employee found the mast arm had moved on the pole and manually realigned the signal heads. The court later noted, There is evidence that after the employee s adjustment, the light again rotated out of alignment.

Submitting the case to jury, the district court named four parties and directed the jury to decide in each instance if that party proximately caused the collision. The State appealed when it was one of the defendants the jury found negligent.

Appellate Court Judgment

Addressing the State s points of appeal, the Court of Appeals recognized that the State is ordinarily not liable for its own negligence. Under Tex.Civ.Prac. & Rem.Code Ann.ch.101.022, however, a citizen may sue the State for injuries arising from a premise defect. Although the State also is not generally liable for defective traffic signals, the State does have a duty to correct, within a reasonable time, a dangerous situation about which it knows.

Beyond establishing that the State did not correct this traffic signal problem within a reasonable time, McKinney had to establish five elements:

  1. a condition of the premises created an unreasonable risk of harm to the licensee;
  2. the owner actually knew of the condition;
  3. the licensee did not actually know of the condition;
  4. the owner failed to exercise ordinary care to protect the licensee from danger; [and]
  5. the owner s failure was a proximate cause of injury to the licensee.

The State claimed error by the district court because the court did not submit several of these issues to the jury; the court had judged the issues to be established as points of law. Therefore, the appellate court considered first whether the issues of reasonable time, unreasonable risk, the State s knowledge, and McKinney s lack of knowledge were established as a matter of law.

The State had acknowledged knowing the collar did not meet specifications when it approved the traffic signal installation, and the court concluded that evidence showed the collar s defects could, and did, cause a hazardous misalignment. Therefore, the appellate court found it was established as a matter of law that (1) the substandard collar represented a dangerous condition, (2) the State knew about this condition, and (3) the State failed to remedy the condition. Although a State employee testified to his observation that the signal was functioning properly the morning of the collision and presented no unreasonable risk, the court ruled his observation only addressed proximate cause, which the jury decided, and did not alter the court s opinion on the existence of a dangerous condition and the State s knowledge of that condition.

As to the question of McKinney s knowing about the dangerous condition, the court said testimony that McKinney drove through the intersection without slowing or stopping showed she did not know about the hazard. This decision established as a matter of law all the points not presented to the jury and led to the judgment that the lower court made no error in not submitting them to jury decision.

In a further point of appeal, the State claimed the district court erred in allowing introduction of evidence concerning remedial measures taken after the collision. Specifically, the State complained about the admission of (1) a photograph of the wedge a State employee inserted between the collar and the pole about five months after the collision, (2) an actual wedge supposed to be the wedge in the photograph, and (3) a work card showing that the employee installed the wedge on March 21, 1990.

In making a decision on the admission of evidence of subsequent remedial measures, the court referred to Tex.R.Civ.Evid. 407 which states:

When, after an event, measures are taken which, if taken previously, would have made the event less likely to occur, evidence of the subsequent remedial measures is not admissible to prove negligence or culpable conduct in connection with the event. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of subsequent remedial measures when offered for another purpose, such as proving ownership, control or feasibility of precautionary measures, if controverted, or impeachment.

While the appellate court felt that in this case the admission of evidence concerning remedial measures was an effort to show negligence and, therefore, violated this rule, they decided the error did not cause the lower court to make an improper judgment. The court noted testimony from a motorist who said he had driven through the intersection on a green light two hours before the collision. The witness claimed that two vehicles stopped abruptly to avoid hitting his vehicle and that their behavior showed they believed they also had a green light. In the face of such evidence strongly indicating the existence of a hazardous condition, the appellate court felt the jury s decision was proper and they should not reverse that decision based on inappropriate admission of evidence concerning remedial measures.

Finally, the appellate court took up McKinney s cross appeal requesting an award of 10 percent of damages based on the State s causing a delay by pursuing an appeal without merit. The court mentioned that the State s arguments required sufficient attention and thought to suggest a justifiable appeal. Therefore, although the appellate court affirmed the lower court s finding against the State, they overruled McKinney s cross-appeal.

[State v. McKinney (Tex.App.--Houston[1st Dist.] 1994) from West Publishing Vol. 886 South Western Reporter, 2d Series, 302)

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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