Claims of defective roadway design stemming from a traffic accident may be difficult to pursue, in part because they are primarily filed against government agencies, which are typically afforded a host of statutory protections.

roadway1But the recent Arizona Supreme Court case of Glazer v. State shows it is possible to prevail.

In that state there is a statute that protects public entities from injury lawsuits resulting from defective design of public roads if defendant can show the plan or design, when it was created, adhered to the generally accepted engineering or design standards of that time and that the public has been adequately warned of any unreasonable danger. The court in Glazer ruled this affirmative defense can still be used when updates to the road have rendered it substandard.

Even so, defendant government agency in this case still lost its case because it failed to establish every element of defense necessary in the case.

According to court records, a woman was driving eastbound on an interstate highway when she approached a semi-truck. The driver started to pass the truck, but the truck began to move into her lane as she did so. She swerved left to avoid a crash, but lost control of the vehicle, crossed the median into the westbound lanes and slammed head-on into plaintiff’s vehicle. As a result, plaintiff’s husband and daughter were killed and plaintiff was seriously injured.

Subsequently, plaintiff sued the state department of transportation for failure to install a median barrier prior to the accident. ( named as non-parties at fault were the truck driver, who was never identified, and the other vehicle driver.)

State moved for summary judgment on grounds a median barrier was not required when the highway was designed and constructed 40 years earlier. Although the state did show evidence the roadway wasn’t unreasonably dangerous by standards held when it was constructed, the state never addressed the duty to warn requirement.

Meanwhile, plaintiff presented evidence to show that not having a barrier in the median rendered this particular stretch of road unreasonably dangerous.

Trial court denied summary judgment request, finding state law providing government protection didn’t apply because the circumstances at the time of the crash – i.e., the speed, size and volume of traffic on that highway – meant the highway might be rendered unreasonably safe. An expert witness for plaintiff ruled the state should have installed barriers five years prior to the traffic crash, and noted there were at least 10 cross-median accidents in a four-year time frame leading up to this collision; all occurred within an 8-mile stretch of this accident site.

The state countered with nationwide standards that involve analyzing one-mile stretches of highway for crash activity, and asserted this was not a high-crash location.

Jurors decided the case in favor of plaintiff, finding the state 100 percent liable (to the exclusion of the unidentified truck driver and other driver) and awarded plaintiff $7.8 million in damages.

Appellate court affirmed, finding state law didn’t apply because plaintiff’s claim didn’t arise out of state’s failure to install barrier protections in 1967, but rather failure to do so in the 10 years prior to the crash, when material changes in traffic volume occurred.

State supreme court granted review. Court noted while state has a responsibility to keep roadways reasonably safe for travelers, it may be relieved of liability under certain circumstances. One of those is injuries stemming from planning or design for construction or maintenance that adhered to acceptable standards in effect at the time of the design/construction/maintenance.

While rejecting that the standard was inapplicable in this case, state supreme court in a split decision affirmed trial court’s denial of summary judgment and the juror’s findings.

Defense did successfully prove roadway complied with safety standards at the time of construction, but it failed to show that the open median wasn’t unreasonably dangerous and therefore didn’t need a warning or, if an unreasonable danger did exist, that it had provided adequate warnings to road users. Thus, verdict for plaintiff was affirmed.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Glazer v. State , May 8, 2015, Arizona Supreme Court

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