Drivers have a responsibility to operate their motor vehicles in a reasonably safe manner. But they aren’t the only ones with a duty-of-care.
Cities, counties and the state have the duty to make sure the roads they control are safe for travel. That means addressing hazards like potholes and poor drainage and shoulder drop-off. It also means making sure drivers’ line-of-sight is unobstructed. Part of that is addressing issues with overgrown vegetation. In some cases, this duty can also be placed on private property owners, where overgrown vegetation on their property creates an unsafe condition on the road.
The recent Washington Supreme Court case of Wuthrich v. King County was one case where the question of liability for overgrown bushes was raised. The state high court reiterated a point that cities across the country should heed: A municipality’s duty to keep the roads in reasonably safe condition for ordinary travel isn’t limited to the blacktop. So if there is a wall of vegetation by the road that makes it unsafe because drivers can’t see oncoming traffic at an intersection, the government has a duty to address that.
Plaintiff in Wuthrich was operating his motorcycle as he approached an intersection. Traffic at the cross street had a stop sign, but he didn’t. The problem was the driver approaching from that cross street couldn’t see him, even while she was stopped at that intersection. And the motorcyclist didn’t see the driver until she pulled out in front of him and they collided. It was too late for either of them to stop.
The reason they couldn’t see one another: A wall of overgrown blackberry bushes.
The motorcyclist suffered serious injuries.
He later filed a lawsuit against the driver, but also against the county. He alleged the driver was negligent, but the county was also liable for his injuries because the bushes blocked the view of both motorists.
Trial court dismissed the action against the county in a summary judgment and the appeals court affirmed. Plaintiff appealed to the state supreme court, which reversed.
The county asserted it had no duty to address hazardous conditions resulting from naturally-occurring roadside vegetation. Even if it did have that duty, plaintiff didn’t prove its breach of duty was the proximate cause of his injuries.
Not so fast, said the state supreme court. The law clearly states that municipalities have a duty to maintain roadways in a safe condition for regular travel. There is “no categorical exemption for unsafe conditions caused by roadside vegetation.”
The county pointed to a number of previous cases where lower courts had decided otherwise. Those would support the county’s claim, the court noted, if the legal foundation on which they were decided was still solid. However, these older cases (all from the 1950s) were decided before the state legislature waived sovereign immunity for municipalities. The standard proof burden for plaintiffs was totally different back then. Specifically, the duty to address conditions outside the roadway were limited to warning or protecting against inherently dangerous conditions. This, the court noted, no longer applies.
The court took the opportunity to “Now explicitly hold (the old cases) are no longer good law.”
Therefore, the summary judgment in this car accident lawsuit was reversed and the case remanded back to the lower court for trial.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Wuthrich v. King County , Jan. 28, 2016, Washington Supreme Court
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