In a product liability case, a plaintiff attempts to hold a defendant responsible for the negligent design of a product that caused injury. But, what if the “product” is a public roadway maintained by private contractors? Can a plaintiff injured in an automobile accident caused by a defectively maintained road sue the contractor responsible for the maintenance? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this question.
Brown v. Seaboard Construction Company
The plaintiff in this case was injured in a one-car accident. She was a passenger in a vehicle traveling down a causeway. The car hit a pothole filled with water, causing the vehicle to hydroplane and collide with a nearby guardrail.
The passenger and the driver subsequently sued the company responsible for paving the causeway about seven years prior to the accident. A trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant and dismissed the lawsuit. Both plaintiffs appealed, although due to a procedural issue, only the passenger’s appeal was heard by the Court of Appeals. This was actually the second appeal; the Court of Appeals reversed an earlier grant of summary judgment to the defendants in 2012 due to a dispute over the admissibility of certain evidence. But the defendant prevailed a second time on summary judgment after addressing the Court of Appeals’ concerns with the earlier evidence.
In it most recent decision, issued on February 25 of this year, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the trial court’s dismissal. Judge Christopher J. McFadden, writing for the panel, said that under Georgia law, a contractor is generally not liable for “completed work over which it no longer exercises any control.” As the Court of Appeals has explained in prior cases, even if a contractor was negligent, once the work is accepted by the person who hired the contractor, a third party cannot then sue the contractor unless there is some evidence of a “hidden defect” in the work, or the work itself creates a “nuisance” or is “inherently or intrinsically dangerous.”
In this case, the defendant argued its work paving the causeway was accepted by the Georgia Department of Transportation back in 1998, seven years before the plaintiff’s accident. There was no question the defendant no longer exercised control over the causeway at that latter time. And, Judge McFadden said the plaintiff presented no evidence there was a “hidden defect” in the road caused by the defendant’s paving, nor anything that might constitute a nuisance or an inherently dangerous condition. The plaintiff claimed she consistently saw puddles and potholes on the road, but Judge McFadden concluded, “neither her testimony nor any other record evidence offers insight into when or why the pothole at issue in this case developed.”
Ultimately, the Georgia Department of Transportation has the legal responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the state’s highways. (Of course, it’s difficult to sue the DOT because of Georgia’s sovereign immunity.) As long as contractors meet DOT standards and the agency accepts the work, it is extremely difficult for a third party to sustain a negligence lawsuit.