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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
August 10, 1997
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County May Owe Duty to Intoxicated Driver and Deceased Passengers If Edge Dropoff Contributing Cause of Crash
Injury to Child Leaving Ice-Cream Truck Did Not Result from Dangerous Condition or Nuisance Created by California City
Michigan City Immune from Liability When No Admissible Evidence Showed Intersection Was Unsafe
Can Graduated Licensing Lessen Risks for Young Drivers?
Washington State Study Focused on Bicycle-Collision Statistics from 1988-1993
Automotive Engineering Describes Effectiveness of Restraints and Air Bags in Preventing Injuries to Children

Highway Safety Publications Catalog. Articles on Road Engineering, Road Maintenance & Management, and Injury Litigation. Information and consulting for the Automobile and Road User, as well as for law professionals in accident investigations.
TranSafety's free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and highway safety publications catalog. See our free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and a highway safety publications catalog.


County May Owe Duty to Intoxicated Driver and Deceased Passengers If Edge Dropoff Contributing Cause of Crash

Stace Mattingly was intoxicated when the tire of the vehicle he drove dropped off the roadway's edge. The vehicle continued forward for some distance, finally colliding with a concrete culvert at the side of the road. A special administrator representing two passengers who died as a result of the crash sued Mattingly and the Illinois County of Williamson (County). The plaintiff claimed the County created the edge dropoff and knowingly allowed the dangerous condition to exist.

The Circuit Court of Williamson County granted the County's motion for summary judgment, and the passengers' representative appealed. The Appellate Court reversed, concluding that the driver's being intoxicated did not relieve the County of its duty to maintain the roads in a safe condition. Finding that a question of fact existed as to whether the County was negligent in its maintenance of the roadway and whether that negligence was a contributing proximate cause of the crash and resulting deaths, the court remanded the case for further proceedings.

THE CRASH

Matthew Rector and Bobby Ford rode in a vehicle driven by Stace Mattingly on a highway in Williamson County, Illinois. Mattingly was intoxicated when his vehicle went off the north edge of the county road and encountered a dropoff of 10 to 12 inches at the point where the highway surface met the shoulder. The vehicle's tires traveled in a straight path along the dropoff for about 160 feet until the vehicle collided with a concrete culvert. Rector and Ford died as a result of the crash.

TRAIL COURT DECISION

The plaintiff argued that the County was negligent in allowing the existence of the edge dropoff and a shoulder that "concealed and obscured" the concrete culvert. These dangerous conditions, according to the plaintiff, were contributing causes in the crash.

Filing for summary judgment, the County responded that the driver's state of intoxication was the sole proximate cause of the crash. Moreover, the lower court noted that no defect in the surface of the roadway caused Mattingly's vehicle to go off the paved portion of the highway.

The trial court granted summary judgment. In the ruling, the court stated:

As a matter of law, the conduct of the defendant driver was the sole proximate cause of the occurrence[,] and the persons in the vehicle, including the plaintiff's decedents, were not intended or permitted users of the highway, under the facts presented here.

APPELLATE COURT DECISION

On appeal, the plaintiff referred to the Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act to establish the County's duty of care to the deceased passengers. While acknowledging that Mattingly violated state law by driving while intoxicated, the plaintiff argued this did not bar a suit against the County to seek compensation for losses sustained due to the County's negligence. Absent proof that the driver's intoxication was the sole proximate cause of the crash, the County remained liable for failure to maintain the roadway in a safe condition for permitted and intended users. As passengers in Mattingly's vehicle, Rector and Ford were, according to the plaintiff's argument, permitted and intended users.

Countering these arguments, the County asserted it had no duty to Rector and Ford because "as passengers in a speeding car driven by an intoxicated driver" they were not exercising ordinary care when the crash happened. The Illinois tort immunity act and related court decisions supported the County's contention that it owes a duty only to those using ordinary care. The tort immunity act provides:

Except as otherwise provided in this Article, a local public entity has the duty to exercise ordinary care to maintain its property in reasonably safe condition for the use in the exercise of ordinary care of people whom the entity intended and permitted to use the property in a manner in which and at such times as it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used." (Emphasis added.) (745 ILCS 10/3-102(a) (West 1992.))

In response, the appellate court cited the Illinois Supreme Court decision in Wagner v. City of Chicago ((1995), 166 Ill.2d at 152, 209 Ill.Dec. at 676, 651 N.E.2d at 1124). Here the court clarified that a negligent plaintiff could recover under the principles of comparative negligence when a government entity failed to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition. Given this precedent, the appeals court rejected Williamson County's defense that it owed no duty to the deceased passengers because they were not exercising ordinary care.

The County additionally argued that it owed no duty to Rector and Ford because they were not intended and permitted users of the roadway. Again, the appellate court referred to Wagner, where intended and permitted uses for a roadway were defined as "purposes of travel and as a means of access to and egress from property abutting thereon (Wagner, 166 Ill.2d at 154, 209 Ill.Dec. At 675, 651 N.E.2d at 1125)." This court suggested that the County failed "to recognize the difference between an intended and permitted use of its property by a negligent plaintiff and an unintended and prohibited use of the property." Mattingly, Rector, and Ford were using the County's roadway for travel, an intended and permitted use. That they were negligent users did not, according to the court, make them unintended or prohibited users.

Finally, the County referenced Thompson v. County of Cook ((1993), 154 Ill.2d 374, 181 Ill.Dec.922, 609 N.E.2d 290) to justify its claim that Mattingly's being intoxicated prevented Rector and Ford from being intended or permitted users of the roadway. In Thompson, a passenger died in a vehicle driven by an intoxicated, speeding driver who was eluding the police and disregarding traffic signs. Although the passenger's family claimed compensation from the County based on a lack of appropriate warning signs, the court found the driver's behavior was the sole proximate cause of the crash. Therefore, the County owed no duty to the passenger.

In the present case, however, the court found that the County did not prove Mattingly's behavior (driving while intoxicated and speeding) or the passengers' behavior (knowingly riding with an intoxicated driver) was the sole proximate cause of the crash. During the coroner's inquest, a County deputy testified to the existence of the edge dropoff and steep embankment. A witness to the crash described observing Mattingly's vehicle "drop off at an angle for a few seconds and then suddenly go from an angle position to straight up and down before disappearing." Another eyewitness described seeing the vehicle moving on and off the shoulder and hearing a "scraping sound" as the vehicle passed. This witness also stated that Mattingly was not driving erratically and appeared to be trying unsuccessfully to steer back onto the paved roadway. Considering this evidence, the appeals court concluded a genuine issue of material fact remained as to whether the crash would have occurred had not the County allowed the dangerous edge dropoff to exist on its roadway.

Finding the deceased passengers to be permitted and intended users of the roadway and concluding a triable issue existed concerning proximate cause, the appellate court reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case.
[For further reference, see Rector v. Mattingly (Ill.App. 5 Dist. 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 652 North Eastern Reporter, 2d Series, 811.]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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