An “act of God” is an unusual, extraordinary, sudden, and unexpected manifestation of the forces of nature which man cannot resist, or prevent for that matter. Even something as commonplace as ice on a bridge can qualify. Three suits regarding a two-car accident on Natchitoches’ Ecore Bridge in 1990 gave Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal an opportunity to discuss the doctrine of inevitable accident and the State’s duty to remedy the icy conditions.
The aforementioned early-morning ice on the Grand Ecore Bridge affected several motorists in January of 1990. Problems began between 5:30 and 6 a.m. when ice caused a woman to lose control of her car, hit a road sign, and come to rest facing the opposite direction that she was traveling. Shortly thereafter, a supervisor of the State’s Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), Neil Bennett, came upon the accident while traveling on department business. Bennett stopped to see if the woman was injured, then proceeded down the highway to a roadside store where he called the Sheriff’s Office to report the accident. He then called the DOTD barn to request that a crew place sand on the bridge and returned to the bridge.
Minutes after Bennett returned, a Mack truck hit a patch of ice, jackknifed, and slid into an oncoming Pontiac. The driver of the car and his two passengers filed suit against the DOTD, the driver of the truck, his employer, his insurer, and the Louisiana Insurance Guaranty Association. The trial court dismissed all claims and the Third Circuit affirmed.
The Third Circuit’s opinion focused on the potential liability of the driver of the truck and the DOTD.
The doctrine of inevitable, or unavoidable, accident relieves a person of liability for an injury directly and exclusively caused by an act of God. However, an act which may be prevented by the exercise of ordinary care is not an act of God; when an act of God combines or concurs with the negligence of a defendant to produce an injury, the defendant is liable if the injury would not have resulted but for the defendant’s own negligent conduct or omission.
The plaintiffs alleged that even though the ice may have been an act of God, the truck driver was negligent in 1) driving too fast, and 2) the fact that his vehicle came to a stop in the car’s lane, not its own.
However, based on testimony of the truck driver that he was driving at half the speed limit, 25 m.p.h. in a 50 m.p.h. zone, and of the investigating officer that there were no traffic violations by either driver, the trial court found no evidence of unsafe driving or negligence on the part of the truck driver. The court’s determination of guilt fell upon the finding that the collision resulted from the ice, not from any negligence on the part of the truck driver. The Third Circuit found no clear error in that conclusion.
Additionally, plaintiffs claimed that the DOTD had notice of the ice on the bridge, but was negligent in failing to remedy the situation in a reasonable time. Plaintiffs contend that Bennett took no action to warn traffic of the ice on the bridge and that he was negligent in failing to close the bridge after discovering the icy condition.
Louisiana law provides that the State owes a duty to maintain highways in a reasonably safe condition and remedy conditions which make a roadway unsafe. This duty arises from knowledge of an unsafe condition on a highway. Before the State may be held liable for an accident caused by a hazardous or dangerous condition of a highway, it must be shown that the State had actual or constructive notice of the condition. Further, it must be proven that the State had a sufficient opportunity to remedy the situation, or at least warn motorists of its presence, and failed to do so.
In this case, the DOTD admitted that it had knowledge of ice on the Grand Ecore Bridge before the two-car accident. However, it maintained, and the trial court later concurred, that the DOTD did not have a reasonable opportunity to remedy the situation. The DOTD barn had only about 20 minutes notice of the first accident before the second accident occurred. The trial judge found no negligence under those circumstances and the Third Circuit found no error in that conclusion.
As for the plaintiffs’ contentions regarding warning traffic and closing the bridge, the record provided that the emergency flashers of the car involved in the first accident were on as well as the lights on Bennett’s vehicle. Additionally, both Bennett and the investigating officer testified that one person cannot close a bridge, and, only under extreme circumstances, such as a bridge being washed out, would they even attempt to do so. Bennett was not negligent in those respects.
The trial court’s dismissal of the claims was affirmed. The accident was caused by an act of God and there was no negligence on the part of any defendant. Further, all liability was relieved by the doctrine of inevitable accident. It is in this limited way that the law accepts one common factor in the daily lives of everyday citizens: things happen.