A February 1996 car accident led the First Circuit Court of Appeals of Louisiana to find that testimony indentifying an ample history of car accidents near a sharp curve in Addis, Louisiana, established that the curve had presented a problem for a significant period of time. The Court found that the testimony was sufficient to support a finding of constructive notice of a problem with the roadway to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). Constructive notice, one of the requirements necessary to find an entity responsible for a faulty element, is highly essential when trying to prove responsibility after an accident or incident involving injury.
Around 7:45 p.m. on the evening of the accident, Jerry Goza was traveling westbound on Louisiana Highway 989-1. While traveling, he came upon a sharp curve at the point where Highway 989-1 intersects with Highway 989-2. Goza’s vehicle ran off the roadway into a cane field, eventually running into a ditch, striking a culvert, and flipping over. Goza sustained serious injuries requiring surgery and rehabilitative treatment.
Goza filed a suit for damages against the DOTD alleging that the design, construction, and signage of Highway 989-1 were defective. Following a four-day jury trial, a verdict was rendered in favor of Goza, and the DOTD was allocated twenty five percent fault. The DOTD filed a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). The trial court granted the motion in part, amending the jury’s award of damages, but maintaining the awards and fault allocations rendered by the jury. The DOTD appealed both the original jury verdict and the JNOV.
On appeal, the First Circuit provided that in order for the court to have found the DOTD liable, the plaintiff had to prove: (1) the DOTD had custody of the thing that caused the plaintiff’s damages, (2) the thing was defective because it had a condition that created an unreasonable risk of harm, (3) the DOTD had actual or constructive notice of the defect and failed to take corrective measures within a reasonable time, and (4) the defect was a cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries. The two issues at the heart of the appeal were whether the DOTD had constructive notice of the alleged defect in the roadway and whether that alleged defect was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
The First Circuit provided that constructive notice is defined as the existence of facts which imply actual knowledge. This definition allows a person to infer actual knowledge on the part of a public entity when the facts demonstrate that the defective condition existed for such a period of time that the defect should have been discovered and repaired. While the DOTD cannot be required to be aware of every defect on its roadways and shoulders, neither can the DOTD escape liability by negligently failing to discover that which is easily discoverable. In this case, because the DOTD possesses records of traffic incidences and accidents, the department would have been aware that events kept happening at this intersection and should have taken action to prevent them from continuing.
Goza offered the testimony of Larry Straub, a resident who lived less than a mile from the curve. Straub testified that over the years he had seen several accidents at the intersection of the Highways and that people often asked Straub’s grandfather to help pull their vehicles out of the nearby ditch. Straub also testified that he had often seen State Police investigating accidents at the intersection. In fact, he testified that despite his familiarity with the area, both he and his wife had had accidents while traveling on the sharp curve.
Goza also offered the testimony of Jason Campbell who testified that he was involved in an accident that was similar to that of the plaintiff.
The Court found that the testimony regarding the long history of accidents at the site of the curve was sufficient to support a finding of constructive notice of the roadway defect to the DOTD.
This second central issue was whether or not the alleged defect in the roadway was the cause of Goza’s injuries.
As a result of the severity of the injuries sustained by Goza in the accident, he had no memory of the accident or how it occurred. However, at trial, Goza presented the testimony of John Bates, an expert in civil engineering, specializing in traffic accident reconstruction and the evaluation of highway design and maintenance, to establish that the roadway contained several defects that caused it to be unreasonably dangerous. The primary defect observed by Bates was the compound curvature of Highway 989-1 at the point where it connects with Highway 989-2, making the curve quite sharp. Bates testified that the danger presented by the curve, under the blanket of night, when Goza’s accident occurred, was increased by the lack of lighting, inadequate signage altering motorists of the significant curve, an excessive speed limit, and failure to install protective barriers to keep the unwary motorist on the roadway.
The Court found that this evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that the defects in the roadway contributed to Goza’s accident.
The Court also addressed the issue of fault comparison, and affirmed both the lower court’s jury verdit, as amended by the JNOV, and its fault allocation. As a result, the DOTD was held responsible for failing to address the issue. This incident demonstrates the need not only for expert testimony in issues involving complex engineering and analysis but for careful research on the history of a locale when trying to determine culpability. Selecting attorneys with experience in these sort of incidences is essential in order to protect the injured party’s interests, especially in suits against public entities like the DOTD was in this case.