City, County, and State Liability for Unsafe Roads – Washington Law
From time to time we are asked to evaluate cases that involve bad roadway situations.
They may have arisen in the context of a stop sign being difficult to see due to;
- nearby overgrown vegetation
- stoplight or intersection placed awkwardly in a location on a roadway or thoroughfare where logic dictates it is unsafe for it to be,
- a pothole or damaged grate or manhole in or on a highway,
- a poorly designed or placed bus stop,
- defective traffic signals,
- inadequate roadway lighting,
- bad sight triangles at intersections,
- defective sidewalks,
- poorly constructed bridges,
- bad signing
- inadequate or defective warning lights or devices
Injuries Caused By Stop Signs
Our law firm has successfully handled a number of these cases over the 34 plus years we have been handling personal injury and wrongful death actions on behalf of our clients, and we continue to get calls from persons with inquiries regarding this subject. Perhaps a brief summary of Washington's jurisprudence touching on governmental liability in the defective roadway or road design situation, much of which is spelled out in the “Washington Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil” (“WPI), may thus be helpful.
Washington State Law About Stop Signs
Under Washington state case law, a government entity has a duty to maintain its roads such that they are reasonably safe for ordinary travel. But this duty is conditional, for it arises only when the government entity has notice of and time to correct the hazard in question. Likewise, a county, town, or state has a duty to exercise ordinary care in the design, construction, maintenance, and repair of its public roads, streets, sidewalks, and bridges to keep them in a reasonably safe condition for ordinary travel.
Beyond just the road itself, it has been said that governmental entities have a duty to provide a “forgiving roadside” in the placement of objects outside the traveled roadway.
The duty extends not only to vehicular travel but also to bicyclists and pedestrians in crosswalks and on sidewalks. A person using a public street, bridge, or sidewalk has a right to proceed upon it with the assumption that it is safe for travel until he or she knows, or in the exercise of ordinary care should know, to the contrary.
The governmental entity's duty includes the requirement that it take reasonable steps to remove or correct hazardous conditions that make a road, sidewalk, or bridge unsafe for ordinary travel, including hazardous conditions that may exist along the road, sidewalk, or bridge.
Warning Signs About Stop Signs
Warning signs may be required. According to the Comment to WPI 140.01 – “If there is an inherently dangerous or deceptive condition in the roadway itself, the duty of ordinary care may include the duty of erecting and maintaining proper warning signs where necessary: ‘This obligation includes posting warning signs when required by law or when the State has actual or constructive knowledge that the highway is inherently dangerous or of such a character as to mislead a traveler exercising reasonable care.' ”
Again, before a municipality may be liable for an unsafe condition it did not create, it must have had notice of the condition. That notice to the city or other governmental entity, however, may be actual or constructive. A town, city, county, or state is deemed to have notice of an unsafe condition if the condition has come to the actual attention of its employees or agents, or the condition existed for a sufficient length of time and under such circumstances that its employees or agents should have discovered the condition in the exercise of ordinary care.
Stated another way, constructive notice may be inferred from the lapse of time a dangerous condition has been permitted to continue. The evidence that the city or other governmental entity had notice, however, must amount to more than just speculation and conjecture.
The State's Responsibility
Although a governmental entity is not required to make its public streets, roads, and sidewalks absolutely safe, it must use ordinary care to provide against such dangers to the traveling public as may reasonably be anticipated having due regard to the character of travel, the incidental purposes for which the street, highway, or sidewalk may be lawfully used, and the nature of possible dangers at the point in question.
Case law has clarified that the duty to maintain a roadway in a reasonably safe condition does not require a governmental entity to anticipate and protect against all imaginable acts of negligent drivers, for to do so would make it an insurer against all such acts.
Finally, it should also be noted that a governmental entity could also have an independent duty as a landowner to use and keep its premises in a condition so adjacent public ways are not rendered unsafe for ordinary travel, where it actually owns the property in question.
To recap, if it can be proved that a city, county, or state, had
(1) notice of a dangerous condition related to a roadway which it did not create
(2) reasonable opportunity to correct it before the injury in question occurred, governmental liability may be found. And where the city, county or state itself actually created the dangerous condition, no proof of notice is required.
Highway design and defective roadway cases can be difficult and expensive to pursue, such that it doesn't always pencil out for the injured person or their family to pursue them unless catastrophic injury or death is involved. However, don't be hesitant to inquire. There is typically no charge for initial consultations with an attorney at a law firm experienced in handling such cases (Schauermann Thayer at least does not charge for such initial consultations).
And early contact with experienced counsel is prudent. For example, if such a claim is to be pursued, it is often helpful to conduct a prompt investigation, including making sure that the road, intersection, sidewalk, bridge, or roadside condition in question gets photographed (or video footage obtained), and possibly measured, diagrammed, or otherwise preserved, before conditions may change.
In closing, Washington law clearly recognizes that holding governmental entities accountable for unsafe, defective, and poorly designed highways, signage, sidewalks, and bridges will aid in the prevention of unnecessary harm to future roadway users, in addition to helping tort victims obtain full and fair compensation for the harm they suffered as a result of a bad roadway situation. Such cases certainly merit consideration.