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Appeals Court Opens the Door to Reinstate Guardrail Lawsuit Against GDOT

Guardrail accidents have gained increasing public attention in recent years. A guardrail is supposed to help a vehicle absorb the impact of a collision, but in far too many cases, it is the guardrail that causes serious injury or death. As reported by ABC News in 2014, a University of Alabama study found that “a re-designed version of a widely used guardrail end terminal ‘placed motorists at a higher level of risk of both serious injury and fatality’ than the original version.”

Stopanio v. Leon’s Fence and Guardrail, LLC

More recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed the potential legal liability of the state Department of Transportation and one of its private contractors for an allegedly defective guardrail. This tragic case began with a 2011 accident on I-75. The plaintiff was driving southbound on the highway through Valdosta. Traveling in front of the plaintiff was a second car containing her parents.

The plaintiff saw a third car strike her parents’ vehicle. This caused their car to “veer off the road,” according to court records, and strike a guardrail installed along the left side of the southbound lane. The car then burst into flames, killing the plaintiff’s parents instantly.

Acting as the personal representative of her parents’ estate, the plaintiff filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Transportation and the contractors who performed work on the portion of I-75 where the fatal accident occurred. The trial court dismissed both sets of defendants for different reasons. With respect to the GDOT, the judge said the plaintiff did not comply with Georgia’s notice requirements for making a personal injury claim against a state agency. As for the contractors, the judge said they could not be held responsible because the state “accepted” their work and therefore assumes any liability.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court as to the GDOT but upheld the dismissal of the contractors from the case. Georgia law normally requires a person with a tort claim against the state to provide notice within 12 months of the ‘date of loss.’ In this case, that would mean 12 months from the date the plaintiff established her parents’ estates. There was no question she did not file her notice until after that deadline. She argued the one-year deadline was tolled–i.e., the clock stopped–because there was a pending criminal investigation surrounding the accident.

In a 2016 decision, the Court of Appeals said such tolling applied to tort claims “even when the defendant is not accused of committing a crime against the plaintiff.” In other words, a criminal investigation of anytime stops the clock on the statute of limitations. Does it also stop the clock on a notice period like the one in the present case? The Court of Appeals declined to answer that question for now. Instead, it directed the trial court to “reconsider” its prior ruling in light of the 2016 decision.