Government agencies – local, state and federal – have a duty to maintain roadway systems in a condition that is reasonably safe for public travel by drivers who are exercising ordinary care.
But does that extend to the edge of the road? The Ohio Supreme Court in Baker v. Wayne County ruled: No.
Of course, this doesn’t have any direct bearing on the courts in North and South Carolina, but it’s worth exploring how the court reached this conclusion, as state supreme courts often look to their sister courts for guidance on similar legal issues.
According to court records in this case, a 17-year-old student was driving down a two-lane country road. It was raining and the sun wasn’t yet up, as it was just before 6:30 a.m. As she was driving, one of her tires slipped off the road to her right. In her panic and inexperience, she over-corrected to the left. When the car got back onto the road, she over-corrected again to the right. As a result, her vehicle careened off the road, struck a statute of a deer and then a tree. After striking the tree, her car burst into flames. Engulfed in the fire, the girl died at the scene.
Investigators with the state highway patrol concluded the driver was traveling too fast for conditions and she was inexperienced – two primary factors in the crash. Although there were no witnesses to the crash, the reconstructionist was the one who determined how the crash unfolded.
The day before the crash, the section of road where the crash occurred had been scratch paved, which involves leveling the surface of the road by adding a lawyer of asphalt. On the side of the pavement was a 4.5-inch drop off the roadside. During this resurfacing, there were no painted edge lines or material that would have made the berm level with the rest of the road. Although edge lines aren’t required, temporary ones had been painted on a few weeks before and again a few weeks after the accident.
Decedent’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county, alleging negligent maintenance of the road.
The lower court granted a summary judgment motion filed by the defense, arguing sovereign immunity and the fact that the edge drop-off wasn’t actually part of the public road.
That decision was appealed to the state’s Ninth District Court of Appeals, which held that the drop off the edge could have given rise to liability. Specifically, the court found that because the road was undergoing a maintenance project that changed the condition of the road from day-to-day, the drop off was part of the “public road.”
However, the state supreme court disagreed, noting that the state General Assembly had specifically excluded berms and shoulders from the “public road” definition. As a result, the sovereign immunity exception doesn’t apply, which means plaintiffs cannot proceed with their wrongful death case.
Pavement edge drop-offs can be extremely dangerous, especially in inclement weather. This case was exacerbated by the fact this driver was inexperienced. Research indicates a pavement drop-off of just 2 inches can cause a vehicular loss of control. This was more than twice that.
In the mid-1980s, many state highway agencies adopted a maximum 3-inch pavement height as a tolerable level, though many still argue 2 inches is the most it should be, particularly for roads with a speed limit of 55-mph or higher.
Every state has approached this issue differently. If you’ve been injured, we can help.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Baker v. Wayne County , April 19, 2016, Ohio Supreme Court
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