By Todd Duncan, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist
When a motor vehicle crash occurs on a county road or involves a county driver, there is a possibility someone involved will allege the county is at fault. The purpose of this Safety Short is to discuss ways that law enforcement can reduce this risk by partnering with their local roads department when investigating serious crashes on county roads. While a partnership between sheriff’s deputies and roads department personnel may seem unusual, both have a shared responsibility of ensuring the safety of county roads while reducing liability and risk to the county.
A simple Google search highlights the significant liability that exists in seemingly routine events. Last month, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) settled a $1.4 million wrongful death suit in a road defect case where a motorist died after the vehicle they were riding in lost control and crashed due to a dangerously low road shoulder that the GDOT failed to repair. In another recent case, an Illinois county settled a $3 million wrongful death suit after a motorist was killed when their vehicle was struck in an intersection where a stop sign was missing. The downed stop sign had been reported earlier, but the dispatcher taking the call was distracted and failed to send a deputy to investigate.
So how can law enforcement help reduce liability to the county when investigating serious motor vehicle crashes on county roads? First, look beyond driver error and law violations. While these are usually the main causes of motor vehicle crashes, it is essential that deputies also consider and document key roadway factors. Things such as lighting, road surface defects, traffic control devices, visual obstructions, and other roadway factors are often called into question by personal injury attorneys representing motorists who are seriously injured or killed in crashes.
As with any investigation, documentation is critical. Thoroughly documenting the presence or absence of roadway hazards will assist the county in defending future claims alleging the crash was caused by roadway defects. When it comes to documentation, a picture is worth a thousand words. Clear photos and/or video capturing the entire scene; drivers’ point of view; presence or absence of roadway hazards or defects; and other important items can be extremely helpful when defending a claim against the county later.
It is also important that law enforcement notify NIRMA and their roads department as soon as possible when a crash involving serious injury or death occurs on a county road or when there is reason to believe the county may be accused of fault. There are multiple benefits of law enforcement partnering with roads in these situations. Roads department personnel offer a unique perspective when it comes to evaluating and documenting roadway factors post-crash including road and sign conditions. They are also subject matter experts on the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) which defines national standards for installing and maintaining traffic control devices on all public roads and highways. Lastly, roads personnel can assist in identifying and correcting roadway defects or hazards that may be present.
Releasing the scene after the investigation is complete can also be an area of significant liability, so it is important that law enforcement ensures that roadway hazards have been properly addressed before opening the road to traffic. Take Kimminau v. City of Hastings, 291 Neb. 133 (2015), for example. In Kimminau, a trooper stopped a truck that was carrying a load of corn mash that had spilled on the roadway. Various first responders assisted in clearing the mash from the road and onto the shoulder. The following day, Kimminau was driving through the area occurred, lost control of her vehicle, that the crash was caused by the corn mash that had spilled the previous day. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that the county, “Failed to monitor the cleanup job by other agencies and ensure the shoulder of the road was clear of mash, such that the problem reoccurred.” This case serves as a good reminder to ensure that potential hazards are properly addressed before releasing scene and reopening the road to traffic.
The key takeaways regarding reducing risk and liability associated with serious crashes on county roads are:
- Recognize the risk and liability.
- Look beyond driver error and remember to evaluate and document key roadway factors part of the crash investigation.
- Ensure all roadway hazards are addressed as soon as reasonably possible and in all cases before re-opening the roadway following crash investigations.
- Promptly notify NIRMA and your roads department as soon as possible when a crash involving serious injury or death occurs on a county road or when there is reason to believe the county may be accused of fault.
- NIRMA should also be notified of any adverse incident involving your office that is significant enough to make the news such as an in-custody death or allegation of misconduct by an on-duty staff member as these incidents may also give rise to a claim against the county.
- Share information as appropriate to facilitate NIRMA and roads department activities.