Second Circuit Rejects Jury’s Assessment of DOTD’s Liability in Madison Parish Highway Accident

The primary duty of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) is to “continually maintain the public roadways in a condition that is reasonably safe and does not present an unreasonable risk of harm to the motoring public exercising ordinary care and reasonable prudence.” In a recent post, we explored the elements that a plaintiff must prove in order to find the DOTD liable for damages arising out of a highway accident. By placing this burden on a plaintiff, state law attempts to balance the need for roadway safety with the countervailing requirement that DOTD not become “the insurer for all injuries or damages resulting from any risk posed by obstructions on or defects in the roadway.” The case of Schysm v. Boyd offers an interesting example of a jury’s misapplication of this balancing test.

On February 22, 2003, Douglas Schysm visited the Isle of Capri Casino in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After consuming three beers, he left the casino around 1:00 a.m. and drove his truck into Madison Parish, Louisiana on I-20. Just outside of the community of Delta, Schysm’s truck collided with a horse which, after wandering into the roadway, had just been struck by another car and which lay in the right lane. Schysm’s truck shot into the air and landed upside-down next to a guardrail approximately 245 feet beyond the point of impact. Schysm suffered significant injuries as a result of the crash, including broken bones and nerve damage. He sued the owner of the horse, the owners of the property adjacent to I-20 where the horse was kept, and DOTD for damages related to the incident. Schysm argued that the DOTD failed to inspect and maintain a fence along I-20, allowed the fence to be cut for easier (but illegal) vehicle access, and failed to warn drivers that the cut in the fence would allow animals to roam onto the highway. After a trial, the jury assigned 50 percent fault to DOTD, 30 percent to the owner of the horse, and 20 percent to Schysm. It also awarded Schysm damages totaling $884,062. DOTD appealed, disputing any fault.

The Second Circuit reviewed the trial record for the evidence relating to two areas adjoining I-20 where DOTD either did not maintain a fence or did not build one in the first place. The area closest to the horse’s pen and where it most likely entered the highway was separated from the road by a fence; however, this fence had been cut by local motorists who used the path as a short-cut to access I-20. The other area apparently never had a fence at all. At trial, the parties offered expert witnesses who referenced the design guidelines published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (“AASHTO”) which establish fencing recommendations for lands adjacent to interstate highways. The experts disagreed about which version of the guidelines applied in the case, and further about whether fencing was recommended at all due to the particular construction method of the highway near the point of impact. DOTD’s witness, with whom the Second Circuit ultimately sided, explained that the purpose of the fencing along I-20 was “to control vehicular access, not to keep livestock off the Interstate.” Furthermore, “there was no duty under the 2001 AASHTO guidelines to have a fence along I-20.” The court found that if even if DOTD had a duty to construct fencing along the highway, it was only to restrict vehicle access to and from the interstate; “it was not intended to prevent a horse that had escaped from its pen from entering upon I-20.” The court observed that the horse’s pen was “not adjacent to I-20… In order to reach I-20, [the horse] had to cross a ditch, a gravel road, a paved road, and a grassy area. No unreasonable risk of harm was created for motorists under these circumstances by DOTD’s failure to maintain or erect a right-of-way fence in this stretch of I-20.” In light of the additional fact that there was no history of animals wandering onto the roadway in the area, the court concluded that the jury was “clearly wrong” in finding that DOTD was in any way at fault for Schysm’s collision.

This case reflects the reality that, although the DOTD is obligated to take reasonable steps to create and maintain a safe roadway, the obligation does not extend to exceedingly burdensome or overly expensive measures. Given that DOTD is responsible for maintaining over 16,705 miles of roadway and 894 miles of interstate in Louisiana, it is understandable that the department must apply its limited funds in a way that benefits the largest number of Louisiana motorists possible. Clearly, it is not feasible to build fencing along every mile of highway in the state. Still, DOTD is held accountable for any failures to do what is reasonable to protect the traveling public.

If you have been injured due to unsafe highway conditions, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who understands DOTD’s safety obligations and can help you get the recovery you deserve.