Second Circuit Appeals Affirms Department of Transportation Case Involving Multi-Car Accident

In Louisiana, the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) is responsible for the maintenance of 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 resonable prudence.” In order to accomplish this goal in a safe and legal manner, the DOTD follows guidance defined in the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The issue in the case of Morales v. Davison Transportation Services arose out of a tragic multi-fatality multi-car accident in Madison Parish. The legal issue the Second Circuit Court of Appeal faced was whether or not to affirm a lower court’s granting of the DOTD’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

On November 7, 2007, a DOTD team was performing road grading on the inside shoulder of a flat and straight section of westbound I-20 in Madison Parish. A motor grader was scraping built up vegetation and dirt from the highway, and a shadow vehicle was following behind. The shadow vehicle was a truck that had an arrow board on top of it directing traffic into the next lane, a set of strobing lights and a sign cautioning drivers of the slow moving vehicle ahead. Records showed that the two DOTD vehicles were traveling approximately 3-5 miles per hour down the highway while performing their work.

The accident occurred when a semi-truck that was rapidly approaching the DOTD vehicles in the inside lane while trying to pass another semi swerved into the right lane but ended up clipping the back of the DOTD truck. The truck then hit the motor grader and ricocheted the first semi into opposing traffic were it collided head-on with an SUV. Both occupants of the SUV were killed, the semi driver suffered permanent brain damage and the DOTD truck driver was also injured. The children of the SUV occupants, the guardian of the semi driver, and the DOTD truck driver all brought suits for damages.

The DOTD filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the suits and claimed that their compliance with the MUTCD meant that the department could not be held liable for damages. The various suits were consolidated and a lower court granted the DOTD’s motion for summary judgment.

The most important issue that the court dealt with in this case was whether or not the DOTD followed the requirements set forth in the MUTCD, which defined the legal way the vehicle could conduct business, deciding whether or not the DOTD could be held liable for damages.

The MUTCD establishes three levels of guidance for the DOTD to consider. The first level establishes standards which are mandatory. The second level establishes guidelines which are suggestions based on principles of engineering. The final level establishes options which are optional but may be utilized by DOTD if deemed necessary. It is crucial to the outcome of this case to keep in mind that only the standards are mandatory, whereas guidelines and options are suggestions for proper business and not mandatory.

In this case, the road grading work that DOTD was performing at the time of the accident was classified as that of a “mobile work zone” because it was work that “moves intermittently or continuously”. The only applicable safety standard found in the MUTCD for mobile work zones is the use of a single arrow board. A guideline that suggested the use of two different shadow vehicles was in the MUTCD, but was not a mandatory standard. As such, the lack of a second truck could not be used against the department in terms of liability.

The DOTD maintained that since it was in compliance with the only requirement that was applicable to the road grading work in question, the department could not be held liable for damages. The Assistant District Administrator for Operations for the DOTD testified that the MUTCD did not even require the use of single shadow vehicle. The Administrator further testified that the use of the arrow board, flashing lights, the shadow vehicle and the caution sign was more than the MUTCD required of the DOTD while performing such work. The plaintiffs’ own expert witness also testified that DOTD was in compliance with the only standard applicable to the road grading work in question.

Compliance with the standards set forth in the MUTCD is complicated in this case as the court states that “compliance with the provisions of the MUTCD… is prima facie proof of DOTD’s absence of fault when an injured motorist attempts to predicate DOTD’s liability on improper signalization.” The court further states that prima facie proof is sufficient to maintain a motion for summary judgment “only if not rebutted or contradicted.”

Despite arguments by those suing that the DOTD should have increased the amount of warning given to drivers, the court supported the lower court’s decision to grant DOTD’s motion of summary judgment stating that “DOTD supported its motion with evidence of compliance with the MUTCD in warning the motoring public of the slow moving grading operation at issue. Nowhere do Plaintiffs’ experts rebut sufficiently rebut this evidence.” As such, the court agreed that there was nothing more expected from the department and dismissed their liability in the unfortunate events.

These factors are all inherently important due to the fact that they are key to the verdict and require keen awareness by an attorney. In this instance, it would be very difficult for an attorney to have changed the minds of both courts because the minimum standard was exceeded by the Transportation Department. However, knowing the factors involved is crucial because another set of circumstances may not have been met otherwise.

If you, or someone you know, has been hurt in an automobile accident, please contact the Berniard Law Firm to speak with an attorney today.