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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
April 1, 1997
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State Liable Where Expert Witnesses Show Curb Was a Hazardous Condition
Characteristics of Drivers Who Carry Passengers in the Back of Pickups
Jury Will Decide If County Roadway Construction and Design Created a "Dangerous Condition"
When Driver Failed to Yield, Downed Stop Sign Not Proximate Cause of Injuries
















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Jury Will Decide If County Roadway Construction and Design Created a "Dangerous Condition"

Four people sustained injuries in a three-vehicle accident on Pennsylvania's Route 51. When drivers and passengers sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation (PennDOT), PennDOT attempted to include the County of Allegheny as an additional defendant. PennDOT claimed the County's defective design of traffic control devices allowing access to Route 51 from the County's Scotia Hollow Road exposed PennDOT to liability and was the proximate cause of the accident. The Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County and the Commonwealth Court sustained the County's objections to being included in the suit; the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, however, reversed and remanded the suit for jury trial.

The Accident

On August 28, 1978 at 4:20 p.m., Leona Mura stopped at a stop sign erected by Allegheny County to control eastbound traffic on County-maintained Scotia Hollow Road (in the Borough of Jefferson). She carried two passengers--Ann McCalla in the front and Cheryl Curley in the back. After stopping, Mura proceeded onto the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Route 51--with the intention of crossing two lanes of southbound traffic to make a left turn and continue northbound. Marshall E. Kelley was driving in the southbound left lane; his vehicle struck Mura's vehicle. The impact moved Kelley's vehicle into a northbound lane, where it collided with a vehicle driven by Mary Miller.

McCalla, Curley, Miller, and Kelley suffered injuries in the collisions. Each filed suit against Mura and PennDOT. Mura denied liability and joined PennDOT in appealing for the court to include the County in the suits.

Lower Court Decisions

PennDOT first appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, Civil Division. Presenting its argument for immunity, the County claimed it had no duty to erect or maintain traffic control devices of any particular description at the intersection where the accident happened; therefore, the plaintiff's suits could not hold the County liable. That court sustained the County's argument.

In a subsequent appeal, the Commonwealth Court sustained the Court of Common Pleas and denied PennDOT's request to include the County in the suits. The Commonwealth Court cited Bendas v. White Deer (131 Pa.Commonwealth Ct. 138, 569, A.2d 1000 (1990)) in which the Supreme Court concluded that a township could be held negligent for failing to maintain a traffic control device; however, the erection of a traffic control device was discretionary and the township had no mandatory duty to erect any traffic control device. PennDOT then appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Supreme Court Decision

With two judges filing a concurring and dissenting opinion and two judges filing a dissenting opinion, the Supreme Court decided the case on November 3, 1994. Reversing the judgment of the lower courts, the Supreme Court concluded:

Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act did not immunize county from liability for claim that its defective design and maintenance of road that intersected with state highway led to collision on state highway.

The Supreme Court referred to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (42 Pa.C.S. Section 8542 (b)(6)(I)) which provides immunity from liability for local agencies. Streets are an exception to immunity in cases where a plaintiff can show that a dangerous condition exited and "the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred . . . ." In addition, the claimant must show that the local agency had sufficient notice to allow time to correct the dangerous condition. Here, the Commonwealth had to show the County had a duty to the plaintiffs and then that the duty came under an exception to the Tort Claims Act.

When PennDOT argued that the County had a duty to provide for reasonably safe access from Scotia Hollow Road to Route 51, the Supreme Court agreed. Furthermore, the Supreme Court determined that a question existed as to whether the County's exercise of its duty had created a dangerous condition on the state's highway. In Bendas v. White Deer, the Supreme Court "decided that the question of what constitutes a 'dangerous condition' is one of fact for a jury to decide." Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court was in error when it granted the County's preliminary objections. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court and remanded the case to the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County for trial by jury.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion

Justice Flaherty, joined by Justice Nix, filed an opinion concurring in the result of the majority's opinion. Flaherty felt the Supreme Court was correct in rejecting the County's claim of immunity and affirming the County's duty to maintain its roadways in a reasonably safe condition. The justice also agreed that a jury should decide if the County had allowed a dangerous condition on its existing roadway.

On the other hand, Justice Flaherty felt "the outer limit of the scope of duty of the Commonwealth or political subdivision . . ." regarding a dangerous condition of the streets " . . .might include negligent failure to erect a traffic control device." The justice pointed out that the jury in this case, however, would consider "negligence for improper design and construction of Scotia Hollow Road." Justice Flaherty noted that It would be for the jury to find against the County:

for failing to prohibit egress from Scotia Hollow Road to Route 51, for permitting left turns onto Route 51, for failing to design and construct a ramp or overpass at Route 51, and for failing to implement other proper engineering endeavors. The jurors are invited to consider the most radical and costly remedies to reduce the peril inherent in motor vehicle transportation. (Italics added by Justice Flaherty.)

Such design and construction decisions, according to Justice Flaherty, would overcomplicate "the garden-variety auto accident case" and empower juries to make decisions set aside for the legislature. Justice Flaherty wrote:

I believe the executive and legislative branches, with political and fiscal accountability, should have sole authority to determine what streets and highways should be made and provided.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Cappy, joined by Justice Zappala, filed an opinion dissenting from the majority. While Justice Cappy agreed that duty fell to the County to maintain reasonably safe roadways, the justice did not feel the County had such a duty here. The justice pointed out that this accident happened on a state highway and that "regulation of the flow of traffic onto a state road is beyond the authority of the County absent the consent of PennDOT. 75Pa.C.S.  6122, 6124; 67 Pa.Code  211.6."

[For further reference, see McCalla v. Mura, (Pa. 1994) in West Publishing Vol. 649 Atlantic Reporter, 2d Series, 646]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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