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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
June 1, 1997
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Bicyclist Did Not Prove Connecticut Town Knew Grate was Hazardous

William R. Langton suffered injuries when his bicycle wheel dropped into an open space next to a grate on a Westport, Connecticut street. Langton sued the town for damages. A jury verdict from the Superior Court, Judicial District of Stamford- Norwalk favored the town. When Langton appealed, the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed the trial court decision, holding that (1) Langton did not try to prove that Westport had notice of a design defect in the grate and (2) the plaintiff did not prove the town knew the grate was a hazard for bicycle wheels.

Trial Court Decision

While he rode on a public street within the city limits of Westport, Langton's bicycle wheel dropped to the axle into "a space between a grate and a door of the grate."

To recover damages for the injuries he suffered, Langton sued the town, alleging Westport breached its duties under General Statutes 13a-149. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed the grate was in a "defective and dangerous condition" and the town had actual and constructive notice of this dangerous condition. In addition, Langton argued the roadway was dangerous and defective because of the uneven grate and the space surrounding it. The town, according to the plaintiff, was negligent in not maintaining the grate and in not filling the hazardous space. Langton did not claim the hazardous condition was the result of a design defect that had existed since the grate was installed.

Responding, the town acknowledged that on the date of Langton's injuries the grate was a dangerous condition. Moreover, they admitted the dangerous condition of the grate caused the bicyclist's injuries. They denied, however, that the grate's condition was the sole proximate cause of the injuries, and they also denied they had actual or constructive notice of the danger and, therefore, failed to remedy a danger they knew existed.

In its decision, the jury responded to the question: "Assuming that the gap in the grate was a defect in the highway, did the town of Westport have notice of the hazard or risk posed by this defect prior to the date of this accident?" When the jury answered no to this question, questions regarding whether the allegedly defective grate was the sole proximate cause of Langton's injuries or whether the bicyclist was contributorily negligent were never answered. Given the jury determination that Westport had no notice of a hazardous condition, the court found in favor of the town.

Appellate Court Decision

In view of the town's admission that the condition of the grate was hazardous, the plaintiff's appeal argued the jury's decision that the town had no notice of the hazard was not in conformity with the evidence and had to be a mistake. The appeal made no claim of error in rulings or procedures by the trial court.

The trial court had reasoned that the plaintiff's argument constituted a claim that the original design of the grate was defective. The trial court held that under General Statutes 13a-149, the plaintiff could not recover on a claim for defective design. Pointing to Hoyt v. Danbury (69 Conn. 341, 352, 37 A. 1051 (1897)), however, the appellate court offered:

A claim arising from a defective design is not per se incompatible with recovery under 13a-149. If the design defect is so egregious, requiring obvious correction, to neglect to make the repairs to correct the design defect can be a basis for an action under the statute.

Thus, if the court decided that Langton's arguments implicitly showed that the design of the grate was defective and the town had negligently permitted the hazardous defect to exist knowing it could cause injury to bicyclists, the statute would allow recovery. However, the appeals court felt the plaintiff never tried to prove that the grate was hazardous from the beginning. In fact, Langton had bicycled on this stretch of road and over this grate "about 100 times" without having a problem and without being aware that a hazard existed. Moreover, the town's bicycle commission had never received a complaint about the grate.

Therefore, the appellate court concluded the jury's decision that the town had received no notice of a dangerous condition was not wrong, even if protection from liability for design defects would have been determined not to apply in this case. The plaintiff did not argue the grate was defective in its original design.

Langton did argue, however, that the grate was a defect on the date of his injuries. According to Hall v. Burns (213 Conn. 461-2, 569, A.2d 10 (1990)), a defect is: "[a]ny object in . . . the traveled path, which would necessarily obstruct or hinder one in the use of the road . . . or which, from its nature and position, would be likely to produce that result . . . " The town acknowledged the existence of a defect. However, the defect's existence alone did not allow recovery. To recover, Langton had to prove the town "had actual or constructive notice of the defect and had a reasonable opportunity to correct the defect." The jury concluded the plaintiff had not proven the town had notice, and the appellate court determined this conclusion was not contrary to the evidence. The appeals court affirmed the trial court's finding in favor of Westport.

[William R. Langton v. Town of Westport (Conn.App. 1995) can be found in West Publishing Vol. 658 Atlantic Reporter, 2d Series, 602]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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