Court Examines DOTD Liability for Lack of Road Shoulder in Ascension Parish Auto Accident

As discussed previously on this blog, the primary duty of Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) is to maintain the public roadways in a condition that is reasonably safe and which does not present an unreasonable risk of harm to motorists who exercise ordinary care. As outlined in this recent post, a plaintiff must prove the following elements in order to hold the DOTD liable for damages arising from an accident on the roadway: (1) that the condition that caused the damage was in DOTD’s control; (2) that the condition amounted to a defect that presented an unreasonable risk of harm; and (3) that the DOTD was aware or should have been aware that the defect existed. In addressing the extent of the risk of harm, litigants often rely on the standards established by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (“AASHTO”) which, while not mandatory in Louisiana, offer a point of reference for whether DOTD’s design of a particular roadway presented an unreasonable risk. The AASHTO’s standards have evolved over time, however, and in many cases they have become stricter and more elaborate as vehicular traffic volume has increased. In light of this, the Louisiana Supreme Court has held that DOTD does not have duty to bring old highways up to modern standards unless a major reconstruction of the highway is undertaken. The question of what qualifies as a “major reconstruction” was at the center of the recent case in the First Circuit Court of Appeal, Davis v. Travelers Property Casualty Insurance Co.

On the evening of April 22, 2003 Nathaniel Davis, a flatbed truck driver for the Purpera Lumber Company, legally parked his truck in the northbound lane of La. Hwy. 308 so he could deliver a load of lumber to a residential construction site adjacent to the highway. Davis parked in the travel lane because there was no driveway at the site that would accommodate his truck and because the road, which was maintained by DOTD, had no shoulder. Davis was severely injured when his truck was rear-ended by an elderly driver who made no attempt to slow down before she collided with the truck. Davis filed suit naming DOTD as a defendant. His theory of recovery was based on the road’s lack of a shoulder, a deisgn which violated the then-current AASHTO standards requiring an eight-foot extension of the highway. Presumably, the shoulder would have offered a safer location for parking his truck. Ultimately, the First Circuit reviewed a verdict in the trial court in which the jury determined that the lack of a shoulder posed an unreasonably dangerous risk to Davis. However, the jury also found that DOTD did not know (and had no duty to have known) about this condition and thereofre had no duty to cure the defect by constructing a shoulder. Davis argued that a resurfacing project undertaken by the DOTD some years prior to the accident qualified as “major reconstruction” which put DOTD on notice of its duty to upgrade the roadway to include a shoulder. The First Circuit court disagreed, noting that “there is no evidence from which to conclude that the roadway underwent a major reconstruction at that location or even that the State had obtained additional rights of way [necessary for such significant work] in the area of the accident site.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of DOTD.

This is another example in a long line of cases that demonstrates the challenge of winning a claim against DOTD under an ordinary negligence theory. The Louisiana legislature and courts have made clear that DOTD is not the “guarantor for the safety of all of the motoring public [n]or the insurer for all injuries or damages resulting from any risk posed by obstructions on or defects in the roadway.” As a result, an injured plaintiff must have a skilled attorney who understands the nature of DOTD’s responsibilities to those who use the highways.

If you have been injured due to an unsafe condition on a Louisiana roadway, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you get the recovery you deserve.