Car accidents are never pleasant, but when an accident is worsened by construction debris left on the side of the road, the outcome can be disastrous. Once the pain and suffering has subsided, the question needs to be asked, who’s responsible? Do we look to the construction company, or do we simply chock it up to the terrible luck of the drivers? More importantly, how does the state play into this accident, and when is it the responsibility of the state department to compensate for injuries resulting from construction debris? The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals addressed those issues in the case of Thibodeaux v. Comeaux.
Jennifer Thibodeaux, the plaintiff in this case, was injured in a car accident off of Highway 190 in St. Landry parish. As Ms. Thibodeaux began to cross to the next lane, her car collided with another vehicle driven by Mr. Bill Comeaux. The collision caused Ms. Thibodeaux to lose control of her vehicle and travel off the highway, where her vehicle slammed into a large cement block and other debris on the shoulder of the highway. The cement and debris had been placed there during on-site construction by a contracted construction company, Gilchrist Constriction, hired by the defendant, Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). Ms. Thibodeaux was ejected from her car and sustained multiple injuries, including spinal fractures, lower jaw fractures, and a lacerated spleen. Among the others involved, Ms. Thibodeaux filed a claim against the DOTD for their responsibility in the accident. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found that the debris and cement left at the site were the sole responsibility of Gilchrist Constriction, and not the responsibility of the DOTD. Therefore, the court found that the debris and cement created an unreasonable risk of harm and Gilchrist was 40% responsible (with the other 60% of liability ordered to Ms. Thibodeaux herself).
Ms. Thibodeaux’s appeal contends that the trial court erred in finding the cement and debris was not an unreasonable risk of harm caused by DOTD. The assignment of DOTD as responsible for the debris and cement questions the distinction between a factual and legal determination. For legal determinations, as stated in Becker v. Dean, the appellate court must review, de novo, the proper legal analysis to render a judgment on the merits. The appellate court looked to determine whether the factual determination by the trial was actually a legal determination that required a different form of review.
In its review, the appellate court found that the trial court’s determination that Gilchrist created an unreasonable risk, but not the DOTD, was a legal error that should have been viewed in light of the court’s unreasonable risk of harm criterion. The DOTD, as stated in Forbes v. Cockerham, has a legal responsibility to maintain the state’s roadways and highways. The court in Forbes stated that the DOTD has a legal duty to maintain the shoulders of the public roads as well, so as to maintain reasonable safety for the operation of the roads and to prevent any unreasonable risk that may occur. Therefore, the appellate court maintained that the DOTD is not responsible for all accidents on Louisiana road ways and highways, but may be responsible if it is determined that an unreasonable risk of harm existed at the time of the accident. What the trial court failed to realize, and the appellate court considered in its decision, is that the case of Woods v. State determined that the DOTD’s duty to maintain the roadways and highways in a reasonably safe condition is non-delegable. The appellate court determined that if Gilchrist was found to be liable for the unreasonable risk of harm caused by the debris and cement, then it would be legally incorrect to determine that the DOTD was not also liable for that harm.
The appellate court agreed with the court that the debris and cement did create an unreasonable risk of harm to the drivers of the road and reversed the trial court’s decision as to the DOTD’s liability. The debris was determined to hold no social utility in its presence on the shoulder of the road, and the likely harm caused by the debris was enough to consider it unreasonable to be left as it was. Once liability was established, the appellate court determined that the DOTD was to be responsible for 50% of Gilchrist’s damage order (20% liable to the overall award in damages). The court determined that, while it was the DOTD‘s responsibility to prevent unreasonable harm, Gilchrist did have some obligation to inform the DOTD of the possible dangers inherent to the debris on the shoulder of the road.
The DOTD had a duty to maintain a reasonably safe roadway and highway system, and now takes some of the responsibility in Ms. Thibodeaux’s accident. Ms. Thibodeaux’s case highlights the immense responsibility on the DOTD to protect the drivers of Louisiana by maintaining a reasonably safe roadway system, away from any unreasonable risk of harm. When the DOTD fails to meet that responsibility, significant injuries are a realistic and unsettling possibility.
Injuries to yourself or a loved one should not be taken lightly. If you believe that an injury was the result of some defect, you should consult with a lawyer, as you might be entitled to compensation.
If you have been injured, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you apply the most effective trial strategy to your case and obtain the recovery you deserve.