Defective roadway design, engineering and construction can lead to fatal consequences for those who frequent these thoroughfares. However, proving negligence in these cases can be challenging.
This is especially true in light of the 1959 Florida Supreme Court decision in Slavin v. Kay, which holds a contractor isn’t liable for patent defects after acceptance of the project by the owner. That means if a bridge or guardrail is defectively designed, plaintiffs can’t sue the company that built it if the government accepted the work. That same principle has also been recently applied to traffic engineering firms.
Depending on the situation, that can mean the only viable defendant for defective design or construction of roads or traffic signals is the government, which can mean plaintiff must overcome issues of sovereign immunity and other hurdles.
Our experienced Fort Myers injury lawyers are committed to helping our clients thoroughly examining all possible options for compensation. We will not advise you to pursue a claim unlikely to succeed, but neither will we sidestep an opportunity to hold those responsible accountable. This means analyzing not just the role of the at-fault driver, but also the owner of the car, anyone who supplied alcohol to the driver, the manufacturer of the vehicle (if any defects were at play) and yes, even government officials and contractors who designed and built the roads and traffic signals and safety devices.
The recent case of McIntosh v. Progressive Design & Engineering et al., weighed by Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, highlights some of the challenges plaintiffs face.
According to court records, plaintiff brought the action on behalf of his father, decedent, who was killed while exiting a mobile home park in his vehicle. His father turned east at a traffic light and collided with a truck traveling south on the cross-street. Traffic signals at the intersection allowed those exiting the mobile home park to view signals farther out in the intersection intended for other motorists, while the signals closest to the park were intended for those exiting.
The design of the intersection, completed by one of defendants, was submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation, which then submitted it to Broward County officials, local police and other officials for review. During the review process, an FDOT employee noted a special signal might be necessary to ensure motorists “didn’t see the wrong indication” while at the interchange. The company issued a negative response to this, and that answer was accepted by FDOT.
Plaintiff would later point out traffic designers’ drawings did not include a tree located in the median.
The plans were ultimately approved and the signals built, but the official “burn-in” period – wherein contractor maintained the signals in the event of a problem – would not expire for three months. The crashed happened just two weeks after the signal was erected.
Plaintiff’s expert witness, an accident reconstructionist, testified the design of the traffic signal was the primary cause of crash because the line of sight meant motorists focused on the second set of signals, rather than the first.
Plaintiff further argued the Slavin doctrine didn’t apply because the county hadn’t yet “accepted” the project.
A jury determined that while the design company was negligent – the legal cause of plaintiff’s father’s death – the design was accepted and discoverable by FDOT.
Plaintiff appealed, arguing the court erred in finding the Slavin doctrine applicable when the evidence failed to show the county officially accepted the final project.
However, the 4th DCA affirmed, specifically noting the fact that FDOT’s own employee pointed out the defect long before the crash. Additionally, the court found merit in defendant’s argument that its work was accepted by FDOT months before the accident.
Thus, the design company could not be held liable.
However, it should be noted plaintiff did not walk away empty-handed. Several other defendants, including Broward County, the Florida Department of Transportation and the City of Pembroke Pines, reached an out-of-court settlement with plaintiff prior to trial.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
McIntosh v. Progressive Design & Engineering et al., Jan. 7, 2014, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal
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