Louisiana Record

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Appellate court won't let Louisiana DOTD off the hook in dangerous road case

By Elizabeth Alt | Apr 28, 2018

SHREVEPORT – A Shreveport couple will go back to trial after the Second Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a judgment in the state’s favor, finding conflicting testimonies about the safety of a local road were sufficient to merit sending the case back to the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo.

The appellate court ruled on April 11 that the trial judge erred in granting summary judgment to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development in a lawsuit alleging the DOTD knew a highway intersection was dangerous.  “The state has a duty to correct conditions existing on old highways that are unreasonably dangerous," wrote Justice Felicia Toney Williams. 

Justices James M. “Jimbo” Stephens and Jeanette G. Garrett concurred.

Robert and Pamela Murphy sued a motorist, Shauntal Savannah; her insurance company, State Farm, and the DOTD in 2012, after an accident on Highway 538 involving Savannah’s vehicle striking the Murphy’s motorcycle on the “Y-type intersection." The Murphys claim the DOTD knew the intersection was unsafe and should have made repairs.

The Murphys dismissed the lawsuit against Savannah and the insurance company after settling in 2013The DOTD filed for summary judgment in 2017, denying any knowledge of issues with the intersection, and included expert testimony that the road was not dangerous. DOTD stated that Savannah was the only party at fault.

Civil engineers for the DOTD provided testimony that they had conducted investigations and concluded that the intersection was not unreasonably dangerous and also found that both drivers testified there was nothing obstructing their line of sight. 

“The sole cause of the accident was Savannah’s failure to yield the right of way to Robert Murphy," they said. They also stated that DOTD had "no records of any complaints to DOTD by any person, entity, agency, or municipality regarding any alleged deficiencies or defects' regarding the road.”

Savannah testified that she did not see Murphy’s motorcycle and was at fault for the accident. Robert Murphy argued against the motion for summary judgment by the DOTD, stating that “the intersection was unreasonably dangerous because it was constructed at a 20-degree acute angle which made it susceptible to left-turning crashes," and included expert testimony from traffic engineer V.O. Tekell, Jr.

Tekell noted that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has warned state officials that extreme angles are dangerous and that “at any but slow speeds these nearly head-on crossings at a small angle are dangerous.” His testimony noted the association has given “over 50 years of notice that the design is flawed and accident-prone," and that “the layout of the intersection was a contributing factor in causing the crash that occurred."

The trial court granted the DOTD’s motion to strike Tekell’s testimony, claiming it was not an authorized document, and issued summary judgment in favor of the DOTD, stating, “Tekell never rendered an opinion that the intersection was unreasonably dangerous”.

The court determined Savannah’s statement of fault “does not preclude the possibility that another party, such as DOTD, may have been partially at fault… the failure of a driver to maintain control of a vehicle does not relieve DOTD of its duty to keep the highways safe.”

The judge said that although Tekell did not directly say that the road was dangerous, multiple statements in his affidavit about the design and layout of the road, as well as reports on the dangers of acute angle intersections from AASHO provide enough to create a “genuine issue of material fact” that the road could have caused the accident, and noted the conflicting testimonies from the experts from DOTD and the Murphys.

The judgment was reversed, and the case has been remanded back to trial court, with court costs to be paid by the DOTD.

The Murphys are represented by B. Trey Morris, G. Adam Savoie and Meagan Shadinger of Morris, Dewett & Savoie LLC.

Louisiana DOTD is represented by Assistant Attorney General Gregory S. Barkley.

Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal case number 51,906-CA

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Louisiana 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport