A malfunctioning traffic signal located in Rosepine, Louisiana, caused much confusion for two drivers one October morning in 1978. Going about their day, both drivers were given the green signal from their respective sides of the signal. As both drivers moved forward expecting the other to stop they collided. One driver filed suit, and the case that arose from the collision provided an opportunity for Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal to clarify who is at fault in that type of situation. Through this ruling the court developed precedent for the responsibility in the event of malfunction. At fault was Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development (Department).
The Court first verified that the traffic signal was malfunctioning at the time of the accident. Both drivers and many uninterested witnesses testified as to the condition of the light. It was described as appearing to have been struck, being twisted, and turning from green to yellow and back on all sides.
The Court then looked to Article 2317 of Louisiana’s Civil Code to see who would be held liable for the plaintiff’s damages. The Article provides in part:
We are responsible, not only for the damage occasioned by our own act, but for that which is caused by the act of things which we have in our custody.
The Court explained that under this article, the injured party bringing suit need not prove negligence. Instead, the party must only prove that the thing which caused his damage was in the care or custody of the defendant, that the thing had a vice or defect and that it presented an unreasonable risk of injury to another, and that his injury was caused by the defect.
In other words, when applying this article to the facts surrounding the accident, the article provides for strict liability of the owner of the malfunctioning traffic light. The Court found that the traffic signal was in the custody of the Department, it was defective, and the injuries sustained in this case were caused by the defect.
Additionally, the Court discussed the duties of a motorist on entering an intersection controlled by a traffic signal exhibiting a green light. The motorist is entitled to assume that traffic approaching the intersection from either side will comply with the red light and stop. In fact, several cases have provided that a motorist given the green light is not obligated to look to his left or right before entering the intersection. All that is required is that the favored motorist maintain a general observation of the controlled intersection.
The City of Rosepine was also listed as a defendant, but the Court found the City to not be liable. The only obligations of Rosepine concerning the traffic light were to furnish electricity for its operation, to replace bad bulbs, and to notify the Department of any malfunction. The Court found no showing that the City had notice of a malfunction that would require them to give notice to the Department.
Should you find yourself in a similar situation because of a malfunctioning traffic signal or perhaps an incorrect red-light camera, radar-determined speeding violation, etc., attaining proper legal counsel is paramount. Only after discussing with an attorney your legal rights can you feel truly confident that the law is being handled properly.