When an accident occurs as a result of poor road conditions the question arises whether or not those responsible for the road’s upkeep can be held liable. This was the issue at hand when Jesse Brooks was killed after the backhoe he was driving on Highway 30 in Iberville Parish hit a depression in the shoulder and rolled on top of him. The appellate court held that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development owed a duty of care to all motorized vehicle operators on state highways and that that duty was breached by a failure to maintain the highway in a safe operating condition. The Supreme Court of Louisiana, on the other hand, reversed the ruling and laid out an outline of when and to whom the DOTD owes a duty of care.
In deciding these types of negligence cases, the court invokes an unreasonable risk of harm criterion in an attempt to balance possible harm with social utility, including costs to the defendant of avoiding the harm. Thus, the risk of injury or death, which was high in the Brooks case, will be weighed against factors such as the legality of the vehicle being driven on the highway, the social good that was coming from the highway’s use, and the cost of highway maintenance.
Since state funding is limited, it is almost fiscally impossible to require the DOTD to maintain highways in such a state as to be safe for all vehicles, even those not designed for highway use. Thus, the court will first determine if the vehicle involved in the accident was designed for highway travel. In the Brooks case, the backhoe he was driving was not designed for the highway. This fact, along with his excessive speed for such an unbalanced vehicle, outweighed his social good, which was simply moving a backhoe from one business to another. In addition, the cost to fix such minimal highway shoulder defects would burden the DOTD in an unacceptable manner when the risk could have been minimized by Brooks himself through his speed and choice to drive an unsuitable vehicle on the highway. Essentially, the court reasoned that Brooks was taking a more unreasonable risk than the DOTD, and thus ruled the DOTD is not liable for Brooks’ death.
Further, the Supreme Court of Louisiana holds that the DOTD is not a guarantor of the safety of all motor vehicle drivers under every circumstance. It is for this reason that it is important to analyze the type of vehicle that was being driven on the highway at the time of an accident. This is crucial because the DOTD only authorizes certain vehicles to travel on state highways and highway shoulders, meaning that a case may hinge on this fact. Amongst acceptable vehicles are cars, trucks, vans, and 18-wheelers. These vehicles are stable and therefore less likely to be affected by minor flaws in the road. The only off-road vehicles that are allowed on highways are those that are used solely for the purposes of farm related activities and that are being used within a five-mile radius of the farm. Under certain circumstances, statutory law allows farm tractors on state roads. Yet, these tractors are defined as a vehicle designed primarily as a farm implement for drawing plows, moving machines, and other implements of husbandry. In the Brooks case, the backhoe fell into neither of these categories and was therefore not permitted on state highways. This fact, coupled with the high speed and minimal social utility highly outwieghed the risk of injury posed by a minor depression in the highway shoulder. For these reasons Brooks illegal use of the highway denied him the duty of care owed by DOTD to other motorists.
If you are injured on a state roadway, be sure to keep the above factors in mind. One should consider who took a more unreasonable risk. If an accident or injury occurred because of a flawed road while driving a proper highway vehicle reasonably, then there may be a justifiable suit. On the other hand, if the injury occurred while driving an improper vehicle, then it is likely that there will be no duty of care owed to you by the state.
Though the information in this post may be helpful it should in no way replace the advice of a practicing attorney. If you have been injured while driving on a state roadway, please contact the Berniard Law Firm for a consultation.