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Appeals Court Allows Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against State Road Contractor to Proceed

Poorly designed and maintained roads are a factor in many automobile accidents. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed an ongoing lawsuit where the plaintiffs allege failures by the State of Georgia and its contractors to post proper signs near a road maintenance site led to a fatal accident. Although the appeals court did not comment on the merits of the case, it did allow much of the lawsuit to proceed against a state-hired contractor.

Georgia Department of Transportation v. Owens

Three U.S. Army members were out celebrating with a friend. The group left an Atlanta nightclub sometime after 2 a.m. in a rented Jeep. Around 5 a.m., the jeep struck an asphalt truck making a delivery to a construction site at the 10th Street Bridge in Atlanta. The driver of the Jeep was killed.

The driver’s parents sued the construction site contractor and the Georgia Department of Transportation, the site owner, for negligence and wrongful death. The plaintiffs argued there was inadequate signage and lighting around the construction site, which led the Jeep driver to enter a lane that was supposed to be closed to traffic. The defendants argued the driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident and therefore it was his own actions, not their actions, which caused his death.

The case has yet to go to trial. Both the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals have had to sort out various evidentiary and summary judgment motions. With respect to the contractor, the Court of Appeals denied its motion for summary judgment. The appeals court said the fact the victim may have been drinking and driving fast did not, by itself, excuse the contractor’s possible negligence. Presiding Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews, writing for the Court of Appeals, said, “We cannot say that it was unforeseeable as a matter of law that a vehicle, including one that was speeding or proceeding with less than due care, might collide with a dump truck proceeding well below the speed limit on the Interstate in the early morning darkness.” The plaintiffs may be able to prove the contractor committed negligence that at least contributed to the victim’s death.

As for the Department of Transportation, the Court of Appeals said that sovereign immunity required dismissal of most of the plaintiff’s claims. The plaintiffs said the DOT was liable for the accident because of its failure to properly supervise its contractor’s traffic control plans at the construction site. But under Georgia law, the state is not liable for traffic control when it has delegated those functions to an independent contractor, as was the case here. The state has immunity with respect to its “approval and inspection activities.”

The defendants also challenged the plaintiffs’ use of expert testimony. The Court of Appeals largely sided with the plaintiffs, but did order the trial court to disregard the testimony of one expert on a particular subject. An expert on “human factors engineering” testified before the trial court that the traffic control signs posted at the construction site at the time of the accident were “inadequate.” The Court of Appeals said this was an opinion not supported by the witness’ credentials. The engineer did not “hold himself out as an expert in traffic control,” and he could not reliably compare the contractor’s road signage with the “generally accepted standards governing traffic control on an Interstate.”