Road Injury Prevention Litigation Journal
Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.
March, 1999
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Appeals Court Declares Contractor Owes Special Duty in Work Zone Death
Originally published in the April 1986 TranSafety Reporter

(This legal summary of a case related to highway work zone safety is reproduced from the April 1986 (Volume IV, No. 4) issue of the TranSafety Reporter, published and edited by Roy W. Anderson, P.E. To find technical articles from the Reporter on work zone topics, please check on-line editions of the "Road Management and Engineering Journal" at this web site.)

A Louisiana Court of Appeals upheld a lower court judgment in favor of the plaintiffs against the State Department of Transportation and Development, and then extended the original judgment and found that a local contractor was also negligent. In reversing the Civil District Court, the Court of Appeal found that the contractor "still owed a duty to motorists not to expose them to undue hazard" even after fulfilling every detail of a particular construction contract with the State.

The appeal in question was lodged by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development's Highway Department after a judgment rendered against it in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Murphy for the death of their son, Michael Murphy. The Highway Department contended that the lower court erred in not finding the contractor as negligent as it was. The Court of Appeal addressed two basic issues: the liability of the Highway Department, and whether Coastal Contractors, Inc., was equally liable for the death.

In April, 1979, the Highway Department entered into a contract with Coastal Contractors for repairs to the Chief Menteur Highway Bridge on US 90. The contract stipulated specifications for the re-routing of US 90 traffic. It also provided for payment to Coastal for the cost of signs and detour roads. The work in question required a complete detouring of both east and west bound traffic off of the road at the bridge.

In the early morning hours of November 3, 1979, five months after the contract was made, Michael Murphy was driving in an easterly direction on US 90 when he crashed through two warning barricades and collided with the counter weights of a large construction crane that was parked across most of the highway.

Mr. Murphy was killed in the accident. Jill Gaddy, a passenger in the rear seat, was not injured.

The lower court found the Highway Department responsible for the accident, relieving Coastal Contractors of any liability. The Court of Appeal agreed that the State was liable because of substantial and material deviations from good engineering practice at the site of the accident, such as the absence of effective "channelization" in detouring traffic, and that painting over the center and edge stripes on the highway was an inadequate method of obliteration. The lower court found that the "duty to channelize detours on a highway is designed to protect the confused and even the inattentive driver."

Evidence proved that east bound traffic on US 90 was required to detour sharply to the right because of the construction. Although the State was able to produce evidence of barricades, warning signs and yellow flashing lights that were to warn the motorist, the Court found that the detour was not a gradual one, contrary to the requirements of the contract. In addition, the method employed in the construction site was not in conformity with the Highway Department's own "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices," as well as the "Louisiana Standard Specifications for Roads and Bridges," both of which were made part of the contract with Coastal.

Another fact the Court of Appeal found compelling was that a large overhead sign on US 90 which advised the traffic under normal conditions that it should veer left was not obliterated. "The instructions on this sign were completely opposite to the detouring directions" which required a sharp detour to the right.

Even though the Court realized that the duty of the Highway Department to "maintain highways in a safe condition is relaxed somewhat in connection with construction activities," the record substantiates that there was a serious breach of duty to warn motorists of the dangers the work zone posed for approaching motorists.

While addressing the question of Coastal's negligence, the Court of Appeal disagreed that total responsibility rested with the Highway Department in regard to detouring and signing. Justice Lobrano wrote, "Although the contract itself is somewhat ambiguous with respect to who had control, we are convinced that Coastal breached the duty imposed by law on contractors doing highway repair work."

Basing their judgment on general negligence principles, rather than an interpretation of the respective duties under the contract, the Court found that Coastal "created a hazardous situation by not obliterating the center line and edge stripes" and "allowed that situation to exist even though it was confusing to the motorist." In addition, Coastal was found negligent for detouring traffic with a sharp, rather than gradual, right turn; for the confusing overhead sign; and, finally, for "the ultimate hazard . . . a huge crane across the highway."

The fact that the Highway Department approved in a tacit way all of the contractor's work did not absolve Coastal of its obligation to the public.

In an emphatic statement, Justice Lobrano wrote: "We must emphasize that it is our opinion a contractor doing highway construction work owes a duty to the general public separate and apart from its contractual obligations to the Highway Department." He further wrote that a contractor "though fulfilling each and every detail of a construction contract . . . , still owed a duty to a motorist not to expose him to undue hazards and, in creating a hazardous situation by not obliterating centerline and edge stripes and allowing this confusing situation to exist, breached its duty."

Finally, the Court found that both the State Highway Department and Coastal Contractors had the ability to correct the problems at the work site and therefore both must share in the liability.

[Murphy v. State, 475 So. 2d 24 - LaApp 4 Cir. 1985.] Frank J. D'Amico, New Orleans, represented the Murphys (504) 588-9053.

Copyright © 1999 by TranSafety, Inc.

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