No Wrongful Death Liability in North Carolina for Speed Study

park with pondIn a recent North Carolina car accident decision, a plaintiff filed a claim for damages against the North Carolina Department of Transportation under the Tort Claims Act. He asked for damages of more than $1 million. He claimed that the DOT’s employees were negligent in maintaining, designing, and installing the right safety mechanisms or warnings and speed limits in a curve on a road next to a pond.

The Deputy Commission entered a denial of the plaintiff’s claims. The plaintiff appealed, and the Commission amended its decision. However, a majority of the commission affirmed the denial.

The case arose when the plaintiff was bringing firewood to a home at the end of a two-lane residential road in a rural area. There was a short straight section at the start of the road with a double curve around the pond. At the time, there weren’t warning signs for the double curve or the 90-degree turn.

The plaintiff’s car was followed by an SUV. Inside were the plaintiff’s wife and their two small children. It was nearly dark. The plaintiff knew the road, having driven it before, but his wife wasn’t familiar with it. He and the plaintiff took the 90-degree turn, but as the plaintiff took the double curve, he heard the tires in his wife’s car behind him screeching. He saw the SUV’s headlights go into the pond. The SUV landed upside down. ER personnel responded and took the plaintiff’s family out of the SUV. His wife and one of his sons died. The other son suffered permanent, severe brain damage.

A DOT traffic engineer had performed a speed study at an earlier date. He gave the Commission his opinion that putting a 25 mph speed limit sign near the entrance to the road was enough to address the curves. A signage expert also testified and found a 25 mph sign appropriate.

The Commission decided that the speed study and signage were completed without a negligent omission. It concluded that even if the DOT had breached a duty to the plaintiff, the primary factor in the accident was the wife’s speeding. She was driving more than 25 mph at the time of the accident. The Commission decided that for this reason, the DOT shouldn’t be found liable. The plaintiff appealed this decision.

He argued, among other things, that it was a mistake to find that the DOT wasn’t negligent and that the DOT had no liability for a negligently performed speed study. He also argued it was an error to find that the way the wife drove was a superseding act.

The appellate court explained that the State has traditionally had sovereign immunity from personal injury lawsuits. The Tort Claims Act waived governmental immunity when an injury was caused by an employee’s negligence, and the injured person wasn’t responsible for contributory negligence.

In his argument about the DOT’s negligence, there was no challenge to a particular finding. Instead, the plaintiff argued that the failure to evaluate the pond as a hazard or the speed for the whole road imputed negligence to the DOT. The appellate court disagreed.

It explained that a DOT traffic engineer performed a speed study in 2003 based on a petition. He studied the traffic composition, the nature of the shoulder of the road, development, and road characteristics. He recommended a speed limit of 25 mph to address the road’s characteristics. The Commission gave weight to a civil engineer’s opinion that the speed study was appropriate.

The appellate court held that the findings of fact of the Commission supported its conclusion that the DOT wasn’t negligent with regard to the speed study. It affirmed the decision.

If you have been harmed due to the wrongful conduct or negligence of another party, the experienced Charlotte car accident attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. We represent clients in the Charlotte, NC metro area and also Greensboro, NC and Winston-Salem, NC. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.

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