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Road Management & Engineering Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
August 10, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Truck Escape Ramps: Determining the Need and the Location
Appeals Court Reviews "Legal Duty" and "Discretionary Function" in Runaway Ramp Crash in Idaho
Effects of Aging on Older Drivers
Vision and Driving Performance in Older Drivers
Easy Ways to Use Waste Glass as Aggregate
Study Discussed Characteristics of Longer Combination Vehicles (LCVs) in Relation to Roadway Design

Appeals Court Reviews "Legal Duty" and "Discretionary Function" in Runaway Ramp Crash in Idaho

A truck driver whose truck brakes failed on a downgrade charged the Twin Falls Highway District in Idaho with negligence. The plaintiff claimed he could have avoided the resulting crash if the two truck escape ramps situated along the route in question had not been so poorly maintained. The District Court entered a summary judgment in favor of the highway district on the basis that the District owed no duty to the truck drive and that the District was immune from suit under the Tort Claims Act. The truck driver appealed.

On September 26, 1987, Beny Freeman was hauling a truckload of corn for Green Giant down the Magic Water Road grade near Buhl, Idaho. This road is part of the District's road system. At about 2:00 a.m., Freeman started down the grade, his second or third trip for the night. As he attempted to change gears, he found he could not get the truck back in gear. Freeman's brakes also failed as he made further attempts to stop. Eventually he lost control of his truck and crashed at the intersection of Magic Water Road and Highway 30 in Twin Falls County. Freeman allegedly sustained injuries as a result of this crash.

During the District Court hearings, the plaintiff made several charges regarding the two runaway escape ramps which the Twin Falls Highway District had constructed on this downgrade. Freeman had traveled this section of the highway on approximately ten separate occasions in the one or two weeks prior to the accident. During those trips, Freeman claimed that he had seen the ramps--one was toward the top of the grade and one was toward the bottom--but they were both overgrown with wild thistle and they were unsigned, unmarked, and unposted. The defendant contended the ramps could not be seen at night because of their condition. Freeman also maintained that the soil on both ramps was compacted and would not slow a vehicle and the bottom ramp's angle was too severe for a safe exit.

In response to these accusations, the defendants showed that some maintenance work had been done on these ramps on the day before this crash. The District Court granted the summary judgment on the sole basis that the District had no duty to install and maintain a runaway ramp. When Freeman moved for reconsideration, the court denied the motion on the same grounds and entered an alternate ruling that the installation and maintenance of the runaway ramps were discretionary functions. Under the Idaho Tort Claims Act, the District was immune from liability.

The Supreme Court of Idaho raised the following issues in regard to the facts presented in the District Court: (1) whether the District had a legal duty to maintain the runaway escape ramps in a reasonably safe condition and (2) whether the failure to maintain those ramps was a "discretionary function."

The Supreme Court noted that motions for summary judgment may only be granted if there is no issue of material fact after the pleadings, depositions, admissions, and affidavits have been construed most favorably to the opposing or nonmoving party, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Court also notes that the question of whether a legal duty in fact exists is a question of law for the court to decide.

During its review, the Supreme Court referred to a case decided after the briefing in this case was completed. Bingham v. Franklin County, 118 Idaho 318, 796 P.2d 527 (1990), also involved a plaintiff bringing suit against a county for failure to maintain a public road. According to Idaho Code (I.C. 31-801-805, and 40-604(1) and {4}), "The county is charged by statute with the duty of maintaining the roads." Idaho Code also provides that "a highway district shall have all of the powers and duties that would by law be vested in the commissioners of the county . . . " (I.C. 40-1310{1}). The Supreme Court maintained that the same statutory duties imposed upon the county in Bingham are imposed upon highway districts.

I.C. 40-109 defines the "Highway district system" and further defines "Highways" within each highway district:

"Highways" means roads, streets, alleys and bridges laid out or established for the public or dedicated or abandoned to the public. Highways shall include necessary culverts, sluices, drains, ditches, waterways, embankments, retaining walls, bridges, tunnels, grade separation structures, roadside improvement, adjacent lands or interests lawfully acquired, pedestrian facilities, and any other structures, works or fixtures incidental to the preservation or improvement of the highways . . . (Emphasis added.)

The Supreme Court concluded that, based upon the definition of "highways" in the Idaho Code, the runaway ramps are, as a matter of law, part of the highway district road system. The District therefore had a duty to maintain those runaway escape ramps. The Court further concluded that the record of this case reflects a disputed question of fact over whether or not the ramps had been maintained, and a summary judgment should not have been granted based upon the breach of duty to maintain the escape ramps.

In addressing the question about whether maintaining the escape ramps is a discretionary function, the Supreme Court again referred to Bingham v. Franklin County to consider whether Franklin County's failure to maintain a public road was a "discretionary function" as addressed in I.C. 6-904 (1). The Court emphasized the difference between "discretionary function" immunity and "operational" immunity and held that a material issue of fact remained which precluded summary judgment under discretionary function immunity. The records failed to reveal whether the district court believed that the repair of county roads was a routine matter or a matter intertwined with policy making. The Supreme Court was unable to determine through the case record whether a policy of road repair even existed.

As in Bingham v. Franklin County, there was insufficient information in the record for the Court to determine whether or not the District's alleged failure to maintain the runaway ramps was a discretionary function. Although there was evidence that some maintenance was underway just prior to the accident in question, the facts available to the court were insufficient to make any determination; and, therefore, the Supreme Court found that the lower court granted a summary judgment prematurely. On February 25, 1991, the Supreme Court reversed the decision for further consideration in light of Bingham v. Franklin County, which was not available to the trial court when it rendered its decision.

[For further reference, see Freeman v. Juker, (Idaho 1991) in West Publishing Vol. 808 Pacific Reporter, 2d Series, 1300]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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