Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.
March 1, 1998
Fax: (360) 335-6402
A driver, his wife, and another passenger sued the State of Louisiana (State) and East Baton Rouge Parish (Parish) for injuries received in a crash at the intersection of a Parish road and a State highway. The plaintiffs alleged that the Parish and the State failed to maintain sufficient warning signs. The 19th Judicial District Court, Parish of East Baton Rouge dismissed the claim against the State and assigned fault to the driver and the Parish. Both the Parish and the plaintiffs appealed. The Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit's findings supported the contributory negligence of the driver and the Parish and confirmed that the State had no duty to maintain Parish warning signs.
At approximately 3:00 a.m. on October 13, 1986, Mitchell Sharpley drove on Stevendale Road (a Parish road) toward Louisiana Highway 426, the Old Hammond Highway, in East Baton Rouge Parish. With Sharpley in the car were his wife (Patricia), his sister-in-law (Deborah Ketten), Ketten's son (Richard Brandon Dente), and two other minors. It was raining heavily when Sharpley's car approached the intersection of Stevendale Road and Highway 426.
The intersection of Stevendale Road and Highway 426 is a 51-degree-angle "T." Foliage hid the stop sign at the end of Stevendale Road "up to approximately 85 to 100 feet before the Parish road ended." Sharpley failed to see the stop sign in time to stop safely. He also did not see the yellow reflective sign with double black arrows located on Old Hammond Highway facing Stevendale Road. The sign specified that motorists must make a turn either to the right or to the left.
The Sharpleys' car crossed Old Hammond Highway into the ditch on the opposite side of the intersection, injuring the driver and his passengers.
TRIAL COURT DECISION
The Sharpleys sued (1) the City of Baton Rouge and the Parish of East Baton Rouge (City-Parish) and (2) the State of Louisiana through the Department of Transportation and Development (State). Ketten sued the same defendants "on behalf of her son and individually." The suits were consolidated.
After a bench trial dismissing the State, the 19th Judicial District Court, Parish of East Baton Rouge assigned the City-Parish 40 percent fault in the crash and Sharpley 60 percent.
The trial court determined that the City-Parish was negligent because it had constructive, if not actual, notice of the obstruction of the stop sign and because the road lacked a stop-ahead sign. The court ruled that the State did not have a duty to make sure that warning signs on Parish roads could be seen.
Sharpleys and Ketten appealed, contending that the trial court apportioned too much fault to Sharpley and that the State should share the liability. The City-Parish appealed, arguing that Sharpley was 100 percent at fault, that the hidden stop sign was not a factor in causing the crash, and that the yellow double-arrow sign provided enough warning that the road ended at the intersection.
APPEALS COURT DECISION
The Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit examined the trial court's findings to decide if they were reasonable.
Sharpley's Contributory Fault
Sharpley testified that he took the route that brought him to the intersection of Stevendale Road and Old Hammond Highway on the advice of a friend who had given him directions for returning to the interstate. Because of the rain, Sharpley could not see very well. Moreover, he failed to see the stop sign because foliage hid it. He never saw the yellow double-arrow sign facing Stevendale Road. He hit his brakes, but the car hydroplaned into the ditch.
The appellate court cited cases related to the duties of a motorist under difficult driving conditions. In Cooke v. Travelers Ins. Co. (590 So.2d 657, 663 (La.App. 3d Cir.1991) writ denied, 592 So.2d 414 (La.1992)), the court stated, "Generally, a motorist has a duty to act reasonably and prudently under the circumstances and is charged with keeping a proper lookout, seeing what they should see, maintaining proper control of their vehicle, and observing stop signs."
In Crockett v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co. (229 S.2d 169, 173 (La.App. 1st Cir.1969), writ denied, 255 La. 286, 230 So.2d 589 (La.1970)), the court found, "Motorists are held to a higher degree of care in adverse conditions, and their duty to keep their vehicle under control increases in periods of low visibility."
In Hernandez v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. (192 So.2d 679, 682 (La.App. 3d Cir. 1966), writ not consid., 250 La. 103, 194 So.2d 99 (La.1967)), the court decided, "If conditions warrant it, motorists may be required to stop their car and remain at a standstill until conditions warrant going forward."
Finally, in Hernandez, the court concluded, "Drivers do not have the right to assume their course of travel is free from danger if they cannot see clearly ahead. If they continue to travel as if they knew there was perfect clearance, they do so at their own risk and peril."
The court asserted that it did not find the trial court "manifestly erroneous" in its ruling that Sharpley was contributorily negligent in the crash. The court found that even though Sharpley was driving within the posted speed limit, he "clearly was driving beyond what the conditions warranted if he could not see far enough ahead to notice the yellow reflective sign facing Stevendale Road." An expert witness testified that the yellow double-arrow sign could be seen, on a clear night and with bright lights, for 600 to 800 feet, and from 300 to 400 feet with dimmed lights. The witness also testified that visibility would not be as clear on a rainy night.
The court maintained that Sharpley's duty as a driver was to drive "as carefully as the conditions required." He breached this duty if he could not see the yellow double-arrow sign in time to stop. This duty included waiting, if necessary, until the rain lessened enough for him to see unobstructed signs.
Further, the court stated:
The appeals court found no basis for declaring unreasonable the fact finder's conclusion that Sharpley was contributorily negligent in the crash.
The Fault of the City-Parish
The trial record indicated that the stop sign on Stevendale Road was not clearly in view until 85 to 100 feet before the road ended. An expert witness testified for the plaintiffs that a normal driver needs 237 feet to come to a full stop at a stop sign. In locations with a "permanent or intermittent obscurement," national safety and signing standards require a "stop ahead" sign to warn motorists of the upcoming stop.
Local, municipal, and Parish authorities have the responsibility of placing and maintaining traffic control devices within their jurisdiction, as stated in La.R.S. 32:235(B). According to Whitson v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. (94-572 and 94-573, p. 2 (La.App.3d Cir. 12/7/94), 647 So.2d 558, 560), "The City-Parish has a legal duty to erect warning signs sufficient to warn a motorist of hazardous conditions. Failure to do so may subject the City-Parish to liability for damages resulting from breach of that duty."
In addition, in Stephens v. Town of Jonesboro (25, 715 and 25, 716, p. 12, (La.App. 2d Cir. 8/19/94), 642 So.2d 274, 282, writs denied, 94-2351, 94-2557, 94-2577 (La. 11/29/94), 646 So.2d 400), the court found, " . . . motorists are not required to anticipate that a roadway on which they are traveling will suddenly end in a ditch."
The appeals court determined that the fact finder was reasonable in concluding that Sharpley's view of the stop sign was obstructed, that the City-Parish had constructive, if not actual, notice of this obstruction, and that the obstruction contributed to the crash. The court also found it reasonable to conclude that the yellow double-arrow sign, in itself, was not sufficient warning of the road's end; the City-Parish should have provided a "stop ahead" sign.
The appeals court found "no manifest error" in the decision that the City-Parish was partly at fault.
Liability of the State
The trial court ruled, without elaboration, that the State was free from fault. The Sharpleys and Ketten argued that the evidence presented at trial showed the State had maintained the stop sign. In so doing, the plaintiffs contended, the State had established its duty to maintain the stop sign.
The appeals court found no definitive evidence the State had performed any work on the stop sign. The court found conflicting trial evidence regarding sign maintenance that the State had performed during its regular maintenance of Old Hammond Highway. The evidence did show that the sign faced a Parish road, and therefore, the City-Parish was responsible for the sign. The City-Parish had also worked on the stop sign during July preceding the crash.
The court maintained that the testimony regarding ownership of the stop sign was irrelevant. The City-Parish's responsibility "clearly" included maintaining "a clear view of signs on city and parish roads." As the sign itself was not covered by foliage, the court found nothing "inherently wrong" with the sign, even though foliage did prevent an unobstructed view of the sign until 85 to 100 feet from the end of the road. The court concluded that the State "had no duty to travel up and down city and parish roads to be sure signs could be seen."
Finding no error in the trial court's judgment, the appellate court affirmed.
[For further reference, see Sharpley v. City of Baton Rouge (La.App. 1 Cir. 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 665 Southern Reporter, 2nd Series, 21]
Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.