Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.
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|(This legal summary of a case related to highway work zone safety is reproduced from the February 1989 (Volume VII, No. 2) 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 Florida couple were recently given the right to a jury trial by the Florida Supreme Court for injuries they received in a collision at an intersection where county workers were doing maintenance work. The issue in this case was whether a governmental entity can be held liable for failing to take reasonably necessary steps at a road maintenance work site to protect the safety of passing motorists. The case came down to the question of whether maintenance is a discretionary or operational level function.
The Palm Beach County Circuit Court had earlier entered a directed verdict in favor of the county which the plaintiffs appealed. The District Court of Appeal then reversed the lower court and found in favor of the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court agreed to the county's petition for review and held that the county was not shielded by sovereign immunity and that the question of negligence was for a jury to decide.
On September 12, 1979, a Palm Beach County land survey crew was dispatched to the intersection of Australian Avenue and Belvedere Road to work on a road alignment project. During the course of its work, the survey crew had to occupy the left turn lane of eastbound Belvedere Road at the intersection of Australian Avenue.
The crew blocked off the turn lane with orange traffic cones which made the vehicle- activated left turn signal a perpetual red light. However, the crew did not erect any signs that would prohibit left turns from the other, unoccupied lanes. Belvedere Road had two eastbound lanes, in addition to the left turn lane. Evidence was not clear as to whether the orange cones were placed so as to block the left through lane too.
While the maintenance work was underway, Marie Blount was driving east on Belvedere and planned to make a left turn onto Australian Avenue. When she saw the left turn lane was blocked off, she moved her car to the far right lane and made her left turn from that point. As Blount made this maneuver, she failed to notice a car, driven by Alma Salas, traveling west on Belvedere and the two cars collided. Mrs. Salas was injured in the accident.
Salas and her husband, a passenger in the car, sued Palm Beach County, alleging that the county had created a hazardous condition and had failed to warn of that hazard. Their suit further alleged that the county breached its duty by failing to prevent eastbound motorists on Belvedere from attempting left turns, as well as failing to warn westbound drivers that left-turning cars might be coming into their paths due to the temporary suspension of the ordinary left-turn traffic signal.
At the outset of the trial, the court ruled that the "Manual on Traffic Control and Safe Practices" established the relevant standard of conduct for the county work crew.
The trial court granted a directed verdict in favor of the county primarily because the Salas' tried to offer testimony from an expert witness on the minimum standard of care set by the manual. The county argued that the manual itself, with its uniform use of "mandatory," "advisory," and "permissive" language, was the only proper evidence of the applicable minimum standard of care. Thus, the expert's testimony was stricken because it exceeded the mandatory language of the manual.
The Court of Appeal, however, reversed the directed verdict and ruled that the expert's testimony should have been allowed at the trial. The appeal court also ruled the following: that the question of proximate cause should have gone to a jury; that the county should not be allowed to "blindly follow only the mandatory provisions in the manual" and ignore other safety precautions it could have taken; and that the survey crew's work was operational and, therefore, subject to liability.
The Supreme Court's review essentially affirmed the Court of Appeal. Although the county's initial decision to block off the left turn lane of Belvedere Road was a planning- level decision, the county had a duty to warn of a dangerous condition when the decision was enacted on the scene, at the operational level.
The high court said, "If the county needed to exceed the minimal safety precautions in the mandatory provisions of the manual in order to adequately safeguard the public, then it had the obligation to do so. Sovereign immunity principles will not shield the county from liability if [the county] failed to perform that duty adequately."
The County defended itself by claiming that it followed the standard of care in its "Manual." In addition, the County claimed Blount was the proximate cause of the accident, not an intervening cause.
On the question of whether Marie Blount, or the county survey crew was the proximate cause of the accident, the Supreme Court held that the county could have easily foreseen that blocking off the turn lane and deactivating the turn signal left motorists with no guidance if they needed to turn left onto Australian Avenue. "Blount's actions were not so unforeseeable that the county should be relieved, as a matter of law and policy, of all liability."
Therefore, the high court found that the county and Blount were potential joint tortfeasors and the Salas were entitled to have a jury determine the share of responsibility, if any, each had in the accident.
[Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners v. Salas, 68556 (511 So.2d 544 Fla. 1987).] Ronald V. Alvarez of West Palm Beach (407-686-2222) represented the Salas.
Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.