Case of the Day – Monday, August 1, 2016

I CAN SEE FOR MILES AND MILES…

It may be a great car wash ... but we can't see the road.

It may be a great car wash … but we can’t see the road.

Every morning, we look to the left and right as we pull onto the main street, only to stare into an ill-placed car wash sign. The First Armored Division could be rolling into town, and we couldn’t see it the M1A1s coming before they flattened our Yugo.

So every morning we wonder whether the sightline obstruction might not make someone liable to our next of kin when the inevitable happens. As it did one rainy night in Georgia.

A car had a chance encounter with a dump truck at a Georgia intersection. The pickup driver perished. Investigators suspected that untrimmed shrubs on vacant property at one corner of the crossroads, as well as a “curvature” in the road, made the intersection dangerous. The intersection had experienced several other accidents due to visibility.

Truck-carIn the aftermath of the tragic auto accident, the victim’s survivors sued the Georgia Department of Transportation, claiming it had a duty to keep trees and shrubs from a vacant lot trimmed back to protect the sight lines at the intersection in question. The trial court disagreed.

On appeal, the Court agreed that as a matter of law, DOT had no duty to maintain the intersection. But it did have a duty to inspect. It seemed that an issue of fact existed as to whether the vegetation had encroached on the highway right-of-way. But the Court discounted the plaintiff’s expert opinion that encroachment had occurred, because DOT contended it didn’t know where the right-of-way began, so who knew?

The result seems to turn summary judgment on its head, letting DOT off the hook without a trial when a real fact issue ­– the location of the highway right of way – remained. We were left as confused about liability afterwards as we were beforehand. And we still can’t see down the street.

Welch v. Georgia Dept. of Transp., 642 S.E.2d 913 (Ct.App. Ga., 2007). Addie D. Welch was killed when her vehicle hit a dump truck at an intersection. A policeman said the overgrown bushes on the northwest corner of the intersection contributed to the accident. A sheriff’s department investigator said overgrown shrubs on the vacant property and a “curvature” in the road combined to make the intersection dangerous. Several other accidents due to visibility had occurred previously at the intersection.

Welch’s expert witness said that a driver’s line of sight was obstructed by overgrown shrubs and trees on the northwest corner of the intersection. The expert said that the overgrowth extended two feet into the Georgia DOT right-of-way, and that DOT was responsible for maintaining the line of sight. The expert also said American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) guidelines for that intersection require a line of sight of 430 feet. Because of the overgrown vegetation, Welch’s line of sight was between 143 and 277 feet.

line_of_sight2After the accident, DOT employees cut the overgrowth. Claiming that trees and shrubs on the property adjacent to the intersection were negligently maintained and obstructed her line of sight, Welch’s estate and surviving children and grandchildren sued the Georgia DOT. DOT moved for summary judgment, arguing that state law precluded plaintiffs’ claim, or in the alternative, that plaintiffs presented no evidence that Welch’s line of sight was obstructed. The trial court granted DOT’s motion, and Welch appealed.

Held: DOT was not liable. The Court ruled that DOT was immune under OCGA § 32-2-2. That statute gives DOT has the general responsibility to design, manage and improve the state highway system. But, where state highways are within city limits, the DOT is required to provide only substantial maintenance and operation, such as reconstruction and resurfacing, reconstruction of bridges, erection and maintenance of official department signs, painting of striping and pavement delineators and other major maintenance activities.

Although the road Welch was on was a state highway, the intersection lay within the corporate limits of Quitman. Accordingly, DOT was required only to provide substantial maintenance activities and operations. Those activities, the Court said, did not include the maintenance of shrubbery and vegetation. Thus, the statute did not impose a duty on DOT to maintain the shrubbery. But Welch also argued that another statute, OCGA §50-21-24(8), made DOT liable for failing to inspect its right-of-way. In order to prevail on this claim, the Court said, Welch had to show that the vegetation extended into DOT’s right-of-way. DOT argues that the overgrowth was on private property.

Although Welch’s expert believed the vegetation encroached on the DOT right-of-way, the Court agreed with DOT’s view that the extent of the right-of-way couldn’t be ascertained without using courthouse records and surveyors. Because Welch’s expert had not relied on DOT testimony to opine that vegetation extended into the right-of-way, and the Court found that the evidence was uncertain as to the location of the right-of-way, Welch’s expert’s opinion that vegetation extended into the right-of-way was disregarded, and plaintiff was found not to have established DOT’s liability.

TNLBGray140407

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