Road Injury Prevention Litigation Journal
Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
December 1, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
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Iowa City Liable for Collision with Disabled Machinery on Highway

A motorist, Richard Collister, and his wife sued the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa (City) to recover for injuries Mr. Collister and his passenger (Elizabeth Martin) received in an early morning crash. The vehicle Mr. Collister was driving (owned by his wife, Peggy Collister) struck the City's disabled street sweeper, which was parked on the highway. The Collisters alleged that the street sweeper's lights were not on at the time of the crash and that the City did not take any action to warn motorists of the machine's location on the highway. A jury in the District Court, Pottawattamie County returned a verdict against the City and the driver of the street sweeper. When the City appealed, the Supreme Court of Iowa held that the City was not immune from liability and affirmed the lower court's decision.

THE COLLISION

Early on the morning of March 20, 1991, a hit-and-run driver disabled a city street sweeper while it was operating in the westbound lane of Highway 6 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Michael Johnson, the street sweeper driver, had left the machine in the highway just past the crest of a hill on a viaduct. After about ten minutes, the car driven by Richard Collister struck the rear of the street sweeper. Mr. Collister and his passenger were injured in the crash. State Farm Insurance Company (insurer of the car driven by Richard Collister at the time of the crash) issued payments to the Collisters.

TRIAL COURT DECISION

The Collisters and State Farm (Plaintiffs) sued the City and Michael Johnson (Defendants). The jury's verdict assigned the Defendants 70 percent of the fault and Richard Collister 30 percent. The District Court, Pottawattamie County entered a judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs.

APPELLATE COURT DECISION

On appeal, the City contended that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that the City was negligent if it abandoned a vehicle on a traveled portion of a roadway and took no action to warn approaching traffic. The City argued that the court erred when it instructed the jury "that the city could be found negligent for (1) 'failing to take any action to warn approaching traffic' and (2) 'failing to take appropriate action to provide roadway lighting which is up to current design standards.'"

The City's objection claiming it owed no duty to warn the traveling public was sufficient for an appellate review. The Supreme Court of Iowa reviewed the jury instructions to determine whether these instructions were correctly stated under the law and were supported by substantial evidence. The appeals court would consider objections to the instructions only when those objections were properly raised in the proceedings.

The Plaintiffs had provided evidence that the street sweeper's lights were not on at the time of the collision and that the City had taken no action to warn motorists of the machine's presence on the highway. Addressing this evidence, the trial court instructed the jury "that the city was negligent if it 'abandon[ed] a vehicle on the traveled portion of the roadway and fail[ed] to take any action to warn approaching traffic.'"

The City objected to this instruction, claiming that it was immune from liability for failing to warn traffic of hazards on the roadway, even when the City created the hazard. The City based its claim of immunity on Iowa Code Section 668.10(1) (1991) and a previous decision of the Supreme Court (Foster v. City of Council Bluffs, 456 N.W.2d 1 (Iowa 1991)).

The court considered the responsibilities of the operator of a vehicle owned by a municipality. The Plaintiffs cited Iowa Code sections 321.395 and 321.396, which require:

. . . all vehicles parked on a road outside of a business district to be equipped with specified parking lights visible from 500 feet to the front and 500 feet to the rear. In the event an accident renders the vehicle and its lights inoperable, the driver must erect a warning light at or near the vehicle at the earliest opportunity.

The court concluded that, according to the above statutes, the City was liable for warning motorists about the sweeper parked on the highway--unless the legislature had modified or eliminated this liability.

The court recognized that the City believed the legislature had granted an immunity from liability for municipalities that covered the circumstance of a City vehicle parked on the highway. The legislature had enacted Iowa Code Section 668.10(1) (1991), which prevents a municipality from being assigned a percentage of fault for "[t]he failure to place, erect, or install a stop sign, traffic control device, or other regulatory sign as defined in the uniform manual for traffic control devices adopted pursuant to section 321.252."

In its response to the City's claim of immunity under this provision of the Iowa Code, the court concluded that the liability being sought was not based on the City's failure to place a stop sign. The court also concluded that the parking lights on a city sweeper did not fall within the definition of a "traffic control device." Finally, the court concluded that the City had not been charged with failure to erect a regulatory sign. A regulatory sign is defined as having instructions for observing "a traffic regulation or ordinance." Any warning appropriate to the parked street sweeper would not be directing motorists to comply with existing regulations or ordinances.

The court found no immunity for the City where it was negligent in failing to warn approaching motorists of the street sweeper parked on the highway. Moreover, City vehicle operators had not been granted immunity from liability when they failed to observe the rules of the road.

The City also objected to the trial court's instructions to the jury stipulating the City was required to provide roadway lighting that met current design standards. The City cited Iowa Code Sections 670.4 (7) and (8) (1991) which, under some conditions, allow a city immunity from liability for road and public improvement designs. The City claimed it had a duty to maintain the lighting only at the level of service the City had previously established.

The trial court had overruled this objection because jury Instruction 29 included the level-of-service lighting concept. That instruction stated, "If the City proves it has complied with its policy or level of service of maintenance of the lighting on the viaduct, your verdict will be for the City on this issue."

The appellate court questioned the instruction given to the jury regarding the City's responsibility for design of the viaduct lighting. Citing Sections 670.4 (7) and (8), the court felt that a municipality is immune from liability "if the road or public improvement was constructed or reconstructed in accordance with a generally recognized engineering or safety standard, criteria, or design theory in existence at the time of the construction or reconstruction."

The court observed that the City's objection to the court's instructions was not based on a claim that those instructions focused on current design standards rather than standards in effect when the lighting was installed. The City's objection claimed its liability was limited to "complying with its own policy and level of service, a concept it incorrectly thought was not incorporated in the court's instructions."

The court determined that the jury instructions given by the trial court were more favorable to the City than instructions consistent with Section 670.4 would have been. Under the trial court's instructions, the City was required only to meet its own standard. However, because the error in instructing the jury was not prejudicial to the City, the appellate court ruled against the City's assignment of error.

As the appellate court found no reversible error in the trial court's actions, it affirmed the lower court decision on July 19, 1995.

[For further reference, see Collister v. City of Council Bluffs (N.W. Iowa Dept. 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 534 North Western Reporter, 2d Series, 453]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.



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