Road Injury Prevention Litigation Journal
Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.
March, 1999
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Louisiana DOTD Found Negligent in $2.6 Million Award
Originally published in the January 1987 TranSafety Reporter

(This legal summary of a case related to highway work zone safety is reproduced from the January 1987 (Volume V, No. 1) issue of the TranSafety Reporter, published and edited by Roy W. Anderson, P.E. To find technical articles from the Reporter on work zone topics, please check on-line editions of the "Road Management and Engineering Journal" at this web site.)

A Louisiana Court of Appeals found in favor of a motorist who became an irreversible quadriplegic as a result of a collision at an intersection which was under reconstruction. The Court found the State of Louisiana negligent for failing to properly install a traffic signal at a hazardous site, made more hazardous by the overpass construction underway at the time of the accident. As part of a $2.6 million judgment, the plaintiff's award of $1.25 million for pain and suffering was found to be proper.

The intersection involved in this accident was the junction of Highway 167 and Cresswell Lane in St. Landry Parish, near Opelousas. Highway 167 was a four-lane, heavily traveled road running north-south and maintained by the State. Cresswell Lane was a minor road that served local residents and ran east-west.

This intersection had a startling history of accidents, most of which had been caused by the failure of Cresswell Lane traffic to stop and yield to Highway 167 traffic. A large number of the accidents at this site had been right-angle collisions.

From the time of its construction, in the early 1960's, until this case, the intersection had been known to have the largest number of accidents per year for all of three adjoining parishes. Records show that civic groups and elected officials had voiced complaints about the hazards for twenty years. In response to some of these complaints, in 1972 the DOTD installed flashing red signals, as well as stop signs for Cresswell Lane traffic, and flashing yellow signals facing Highway 167 traffic. In spite of these precautions, the accident rate continued to increase at this intersection.

In 1977, the state, through the DOTD, began to construct an overpass at the intersection. The overpass was completed after this case was filed, and, as can be expected, right-angle collisions have been eliminated at the intersection.

However, on February 14, 1978, when Julius Hatcher was severely injured, the overpass was under construction. Work crews were at the site when the accident occurred. Mounds of dirt and heavy road equipment interfered with visibility, but did not eliminate passage through the intersection for traffic on Cresswell Lane. No flaggers were employed at the intersection and the only traffic signals were the flashing lights previously placed. The general contractor had requested that the DOTD place a stop-go traffic light at the intersection for safety purposes during construction.

Hatcher was driving south on Highway 167 in a pick-up truck. Madelon Bowman was driving west on Cresswell Lane in her car. She testified that she stopped before attempting to cross Highway 167 and did not see any traffic on the highway. Regardless of whether she came to a full stop or not, her vision was obscured by the fill dirt and the machinery. She entered the intersection and her car collided with Hatcher's truck, which flipped over several times, ejecting Hatcher, and coming to rest against a third vehicle.

The trial judge found the DOTD liable in its failure to monitor the intersection properly and in its consequent failure to install a stop-go signal, which he found to be the proximate cause of Hatcher's injuries. The state appealed this ruling and claimed the damage award was excessive.

The Appeals Court based its finding on the fact that the DOTD is required by law to comply with the "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices" (MUTCD). "Compliance with the provisions of the manual is prima facie proof of a road authority's absence of fault when an injured motorist attempts to predicate the liability of the road authority on improper signalization or road marking."

During the trial, the judge noted that the DOTD had violated two "warrants" which apply to the use of stop-go signals in the MUTCD, and that further, the DOTD had made only one complete traffic study at the intersection, and that was conducted in 1967. The state's defense witnesses were dismissed by the judge because their testimony relied upon the 1967 study which, in the judge's opinion, was out of date by 1978. The judge noted that the "accident rate at the intersection had increased 345 percent as measured from the five year average of the 1967 study to a three year average for the years immediately prior to the accident."

Even the state's expert witness repeatedly expressed the view that Cresswell motorists were aware of the requirement to stop, but did not obey the stop signs and flashers. He said that a stop-go signal would have brought Madelon Bowman to a full stop and she would not have entered Highway 167 without a green light which would have assured her that the road was clear. "A stop-go signal at the intersection would have avoided the tragic collision," the state's expert testified.

The trial judge ultimately based his finding of liability on the DOTD's failure to take even the most basic and necessary investigative steps to begin a study of whether or not a stop-go signal would have been proper at the intersection.

The Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the trial judge's assessment of liability and found the damages awarded to Hatcher proper.

[Hatcher v. State through Dept. of Transp. 467 So.2d 584 La. App. 3 Cir. 1985]

Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.

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