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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
August 10, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
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County May Owe Duty to Intoxicated Driver and Deceased Passengers If Edge Dropoff Contributing Cause of Crash
Injury to Child Leaving Ice-Cream Truck Did Not Result from Dangerous Condition or Nuisance Created by California City
Michigan City Immune from Liability When No Admissible Evidence Showed Intersection Was Unsafe
Can Graduated Licensing Lessen Risks for Young Drivers?
Washington State Study Focused on Bicycle-Collision Statistics from 1988-1993
Automotive Engineering Describes Effectiveness of Restraints and Air Bags in Preventing Injuries to Children

Highway Safety Publications Catalog. Articles on Road Engineering, Road Maintenance & Management, and Injury Litigation. Information and consulting for the Automobile and Road User, as well as for law professionals in accident investigations.
TranSafety's free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and highway safety publications catalog. See our free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and a highway safety publications catalog.


Michigan City Immune from Liability When No Admissible Evidence Showed Intersection Was Unsafe

Two vehicles collided at an intersection in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. The intersection had stop signs controlling traffic from two, but not four, directions. One vehicle subsequently struck and injured a pedestrian standing on the sidewalk. The minor pedestrian, through her next friend, sued the drivers and the owners of both vehicles and the municipality of Dearborn Heights.

Suits against the drivers/owners settled, and the Wayne Circuit Court granted the municipality's motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision, concluding that the plaintiff did not prove the traffic signs at the intersection were inadequate. However, the court also found that governmental immunity did not extend to municipalities and Dearborn Heights could be sued for failure to install adequate traffic signs.

THE COLLISION

On April 24, 1989, Sarah Elizabeth Cox stood on the sidewalk at the intersection of two streets in Dearborn Heights. Stop signs controlled traffic on one street in both directions, while the other was a through street without stop signs. Sonia Lynn White apparently stopped her vehicle at the sign confronting her and drove into the intersection without noticing an approaching vehicle. White's vehicle struck the other vehicle and pushed that vehicle onto the sidewalk, where it struck and injured Sarah Cox.

Daniel Cox, as next friend to Sarah Cox, sued Sonia White and the driver of the other vehicle, the owners of both vehicles, and the municipality of Dearborn Heights. The plaintiffs reached settlement agreements with the drivers and owners. Dearborn Heights moved for summary judgment.

TRIAL COURT DECISION

Arguing before the trail court, the plaintiff said the municipality's failure to install stop signs at the intersection to control traffic in all four directions was "a breach of its duty to maintain the highway in a state of reasonable and safe repair." Such a breach, according to the plaintiff, was within the highway exception to the broad immunity given governmental agencies by M.C.L. 3.996(102)(1). The lower court agreed that the municipality had a duty to maintain the intersection in a reasonably safe condition and could be liable for a breach of that duty.

The plaintiff further contended that the municipality breached its duty and created an unsafe condition when it failed to put in stop signs for all four directions at the intersection where the collision happened. However, after learning that the plaintiff's expert witness would not testify that the intersection was unsafe, the lower court granted Dearborn Heights' motion for summary judgment. The trial court concluded that non-expert testimony from people who lived in the neighborhood was not adequate to create "a material factual issue concerning the safety of the intersection."

APPEAL COURT DECISION

Defending against the plaintiff's appeal, the municipality made additional arguments. Dearborn Heights claimed that M.C.L. 691.1402(1) M.S.A. 3.996(102)(1) extended the municipality's duty only to the "improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel." Therefore, the municipality said it had no duty to install or maintain traffic signs, which were off the traveled portion of the roadway. Moreover, the municipality argued the broad duty to maintain highways to support "reasonably safe and convenient" travel for the public did not entail a duty to install adequate traffic control devices.

The appellate court first considered the issue of the municipality's duty being confined to the improved portion of the highway and pointed out that the highway exception in M.C.L. 691.1402(1), M.S.A. 3.996(102)(1) does state:

The duty of the state and the county road commissions to repair and maintain highways, and the liability therefor, shall extend only to the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel and shall not include sidewalks, crosswalks, or any other installation outside of the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel.

While this statement clearly limits duty to the improved section of the highway, it also clearly applies that limitation only to state and county road commissions. The court referred to Mason v. Wayne Co. Bd. Of Comm'rs (447 Mich. 130, 134, 523 N.W.2d 791 (1994)) in which the Supreme Court concluded that the limitation in the highway exception "applies only to counties and the state." In view of this conclusion, this appellate court found themselves "constrained to reject defendant's contention." Therefore, the court determined the municipality's duty fell under the broader definition of maintaining "the highway in reasonable repair so that it is reasonably safe and convenient for public travel."

The question then became whether this broad duty included the duty to install traffic control devices. Concluding that the duty to maintain a reasonably safe highway did include the duty "to install adequate traffic signs," the court cited Salvati v. State Hwy Dep't (415 Mich 708, 715; 330 NW2d 64 (1982)). In Salvati, the court established that "the duty to maintain a highway in reasonable repair encompasses the maintenance of traffic signs." This court opinion developed because the Legislature had originally excluded alleys from the term "highways" and subsequently excluded trees and utility poles. However, they had never excluded signs and signals. This court conceded that "the Legislature's failure to exclude signs or lights from the definition of a highway does not necessarily show that it intended to include them." However, lacking precedent excluding stop signs from the municipality's duty to maintain a reasonably safe highway, the court chose to find Dearborn Heights did have a duty to install adequate traffic signs at the intersection where the crash happened. The court acknowledged that its decision as to the duty imposed on the state or the counties would be different and that it was "puzzled with regard to the Legislature's disparate treatment of municipalities."

Next the court addressed the issue of whether the municipality had breached its duty and created an unsafe condition by failing to make this intersection a four-way stop. The plaintiff was required to present sufficient admissible evidence to make the safety of the intersection a material issue of fact for the jury to consider. The plaintiff's expert, however, declined to testify that the intersection was unsafe. The expert cited "inadequate traffic studies" as his reason for being unable to make that judgment. The plaintiff then offered a petition signed by area residents and claiming the intersection was unsafe. The court called this a "political document" and remained unpersuaded by it--considering the expert's unwillingness to call the intersection unsafe. The plaintiff also presented testimony that the municipality installed additional stop signs at the intersection following the collision that led to this suit. However, the court referred to MRE 407 which precludes evidence of subsequent remedial measures and, therefore, found this testimony inadmissible. In a final attempt to show the intersection was unsafe, the plaintiff claimed the municipality had failed to comply with the Michigan Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. While such a failure to comply would have been admissible evidence, the court concluded the plaintiff did not present specific evidence that showed a lack of compliance.

Given that the plaintiff did not present sufficient admissible evidence that the defendant breached its duty to maintain a reasonably safe highway, the appellate court affirmed a summary disposition in favor of the municipality.

[For further reference, see Cox by Cox v. City of Dearborn Heights (Mich.App. 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 534 North Western Reporter, 2d Series, 135]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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