Late in the afternoon of April 15, 2001, Geraldine Fruge and her eight-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Lejeune, were involved in an auto accident on US Highway 171 in Beauregard Parish. Fruge, who was driving southbound, lost control of her Pontiac and veered into oncoming traffic. Tragically, both she and Lejeune were killed when their car struck a Ford pickup truck heading northbound. It had been raining on and off throughout the day and Highway 171 was wet at the time of the crash. The victims’ family brought a wrongful death action against Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). The plaintiffs alleged that due to the highway’s construction, water was allowed to collect and pond on the roadway. They alleged that this condition amounted to a defect that caused Fruge’s car to hydroplane. After jury returned a verdict in favor of DOTD, the plaintiffs appealed.
The primary duty of Louisiana’s DOTD is to maintain the public roadways in a condition that is reasonably safe and which does not present an unreasonable risk of harm to motorists who exercise ordinary care. As discussed in this prior blog post, a plaintiff must prove the following elements in a tort action against DOTD arising from accident on the roadway: (1) that the condition that caused the damage was in DOTD’s control; (2) that the condition amounted to a defect that presented an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) that the DOTD was aware or should have been aware that the defect existed; and (4) that the defect was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Upon review, the Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit began “with the second element: whether Highway 171 contained a condition that created an unreasonable risk of harm.”
The court reviewed the record and examined the testimony presented by eyewitnesses, experts, and accident investigators, much of which centered around the ridges or ruts in the travel lane that on the day of the accident held water on the road. The court noted that “it is clear that the jury could not have come to any conclusion other than the fact that the travel ruts on both lanes of Highway 171 were holding some water at the time of the accident. Thus, the pivotal question is whether this retention of water was a defect in the highway that created an unreasonable risk of harm.” After an exhaustive review of matters such as rut depth, roadway gradient, tire tread depth, and the physics of hydroplaning, the jury found that the condition of the road did not present an unreasonable risk of harm. “The issue to be resolved by a reviewing court is not whether the trier of fact was right or wrong, but whether the factfinder’s conclusion was a reasonable one.” Accordingly, the court held that “the evidence in the record provides a reasonable factual basis for the jury to have concluded that Highway 171 was not defective,” and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
There can be no doubt that the plaintiffs were devastated by the loss of Fruge and Lejeune–understandably so. This case provides a poignant reminder that plaintiffs face a significant burden in any action against the DOTD. As the courts have made clear, “DOTD is not a guarantor of the safety of those who travel the highways.” Rather, its “duty to the traveling public is breached only when the highway at the scene of the accident is found to be in an unreasonably dangerous condition.” Therefore, its essential that an injured plaintiff have a skilled attorney who understands the nature of DOTD’s responsibilities.
If you have been injured due to an unsafe condition on a Louisiana roadway, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you get the recovery you deserve.