Law Review: Caltrans sued for dangerous highway design
April 12, 2018
How many times have you been involved in an accident or seen an accident where the design of the roadway or intersection, or the condition of the road appears to be a factor in causing the crash? Is Caltrans or are other public agencies ever responsible?
LOS BANOS CAR CRASH
Erik Rodriguez was a passenger in a pickup truck travelling westbound on SR 152 towards Los Banos when the truck ran off the roadway. The truck veered from the number one (fast) lane across the slow lane and paved shoulder, then off the road to the right and down an embankment. Unfortunately, the accident caused injuries and a fatality.
Rodriguez sued Caltrans claiming a "dangerous condition of public property," specifically that the edge of the roadway and shoulder did not contain a "rumble strip" that would alert drivers who inadvertently veered onto the shoulder. A rumble strip, as I now know, is what they call those carved/imprinted bumps in the centerline or edge of the road to let drivers know they are going somewhere they should not.
LIABILITY FOR DANGEROUS ROADWAY CONDITIONS
Here's the law on suing a public entity. Under the Government Claims Act "a public entity is not liable for an injury, except as otherwise provided by statute." That's the bad news — unless you are a governmental agency.
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One of the laws imposing public agency liability recites that public entities are liable for injuries caused by "maintaining dangerous conditions on their property when the condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred." That sounds promising (if you are a plaintiff).
On the other hand, government entities have certain immunities from liability. One such law regarding dangerous conditions on roadways is Section 830.6 of the Government Code: "Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable under this chapter for an injury caused by the plan or design… where such plan or design has been approved… by some other…employee exercising discretionary authority to give such approval or where such plan or design is prepared in conformity with standards previously so approved…"
Section 830.6, the so-called Design Immunity Statute, also requires that the public entity's approval of the plan or design is reasonable.
The issue in Erik Rodriguez v. Department of Transportation is whether Caltrans' can claim design immunity, specifically was Caltrans' design for this section of SR 152 approved in advance of construction by a Caltrans employee exercising discretionary authority.
The legislative intent of roadway design immunity is to avoid judges and juries second-guessing the initial design done by Caltrans. The design immunity law was to prevent auto accident victims from always claiming the cause of their crash was a dangerous roadway design.
The Caltrans engineer who designed SR 152 testified that he did not consider the use of rumble strips because they were not common back in 1992.
Rodriguez's lawyers argued, cleverly, that the design immunity statute (830.6) requires an employee to use discretionary authority when designing the roadway feature, and if the design engineer did not even consider rumble strips, he really did not use any discretion.
The Fifth Appellate District Court of Appeal ruled for Caltrans so as not to open the door to multiple lawsuits claiming roadway design defects, which Caltrans argued would empower juries to second guess roadway designs.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim's practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA's, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.
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