Drunk Driver’s Claim Against the Louisiana Department of Transportation Fails Under the “Gross Negligence” Exception

According to state law, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) has a duty to maintain the public highways in a condition that is reasonably safe for drivers exercising care and reasonable prudence, and even for those who are slightly exceeding the speed limit or who are momentarily inattentive. Ferrouillet v. State ex rel. DOTD. If the DOTD is aware of a defect in the roadway that cannot be immediately corrected, it must provide adequate warnings of the danger. The warnings should be “sufficient to alert the ordinary, reasonable motorist, based on considerations of probable volume of traffic, the character of the road, and the use reasonably to be anticipated.” Generally, in order for the DOTD to be held liable for damages, injuries, or death on a roadway, the plaintiff must prove: (1) that the thing that caused the damage was in the DOTD’s control; (2) that the thing that caused the damage amounted to a defect that presented an unreasonable risk of harm; and (3) that the defect was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s damages. It is well settled, however, that the DOTD’s duty “does not extend to protect motorists against harm which would not have occurred but for their grossly negligent operation of a motor vehicle.” The tragic case of Lyncker v. Design Engineering, Inc. provides an illustration of this point.

During the afternoon of September 15, 2004, William Lyncker consumed a substantial quantity of of beer as he made preparations to his home, boats, and business equipment for the arrival of Hurricane Ivan in New Orleans. Around 8:00 PM, Lyncker decided to drive to a family member’s restaurant to help with hurricane preparations there. The route to the restaurant would take him eastbound on Highway 90, which had earlier that day been closed by the DOTD approximately three miles east of the intersection with Highway 11 due to the installation of a floodgate in anticipation of the rising waters. Lyncker made his way toward Highway 90 on Highway 11 where, upon encountering a barricade, he drove off the road and over an earthen levee to avoid it. Lyncker continued toward the intersection with Highway 90 when he came upon additional warning signs and more barricades. Nevertheless, Lyncker turned onto Highway 90 and drove at speeds approaching 75 MPH. Lyncker did not slow down when he approached the caution-lit steel barricades that the DOTD had installed in front of the floodgate. In fact, Lyncker struck the barricades without even applying his brakes, and one of the barricades became trapped under Lyncker’s truck. Still, Lyncker continued speeding towards the Highway 90 floodgate as the barricade dragged beneath his truck. Lyncker’s truck was discovered crashed into the floodgate, which had collapsed. Lyncker was killed in the collision, and subsequent toxicology reports showed that Lyncker had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.21 percent (the legal limit is 0.08 percent) at the time of the accident.

Lyncker’s family filed a wrongful death action against Design Engineering, Inc., the Orleans Parish Levee District, and the DOTD alleging negligence in the construction and maintenance of the floodgate, as well as failure to warn. The DOTD filed a motion for summary judgment based on the Louisiana Code Section that provides immunity when a driver sustains damages or death while driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages or drugs and is over 25 percent negligent. La. Rev. Stat. ß 9:2798.4. The district court granted the motion, finding that “any reasonable fact finder would be compelled to find [Lyncker] in excess of twenty-five percent negligent.” On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that “since Mr. Lyncker crashed through the lighted barriers while heavily intoxicated and without slowing down, in this case, no warnings may have been enough to prevent the accident.” The court agreed with the district court’s finding that there was no issue of fact over Lyncker’s being at least 25 percent at fault and further concluded that “Lyncker’s intoxication is the sole and proximate cause of his fatal accident.” Accordingly, the court upheld the district court’s granting of summary judgment to DOTD under the immunity statute.

Lyncker’s unfortunate situation demonstrates the law’s effort to compare the relative fault of the parties when it is possible that more than one person’s negligence caused an accident. In this case, it was not even necessary for the court to examine the potential negligence on the part of the DOTD because the court felt, as a matter of law, that Lyncker was at least a quarter responsible for this sad outcome due to his heavily intoxicated driving; under the Louisiana statute, this finding was the only one necessary to provide the DOTD immunity for the plainitiffs’ claims.