Government liable for unsafe road condition

2041-Spring-General-2014-JM2Jason Rhoades was driving across an icy bridge on Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York when his vehicle slid across the roadway and vaulted up a snowbank that had accumulated against a concrete barrier. His car went up the bank, fell off the bridge, and landed on the road below. The 28-year-old father of two – who was also the mayor of a neighboring town – died from his injuries.

Less than two days later, William Gardner, a retired Air Force colonel, was killed in a similar accident at the exact same spot.

The families of both men sued the state, arguing that it had carelessly failed to plow the snow away from the guardrail barrier, thus leaving the bridge without any protection if a car slid toward the edge.

Initially, a judge threw out both cases, ruling that the state couldn’t have known about the danger in time to fix it.

But an appeals court sided with the victims. It said a similar crash had occurred in the past on the same bridge, which should have put the state on notice that its plowing methods were dangerously inadequate. It also said the state should certainly have removed the snow after Rhoades’ accident, but instead it plowed more snow against the barrier, increasing the odds of the same thing happening to Gardner.

While this particular case involved snow plowing, you should know that governments can potentially be sued for all sorts of road maintenance problems that cause injury – including potholes, broken traffic lights, lack of signage, overgrown trees and bushes that reduce visibility, and even poor planning that makes a curve or an intersection more dangerous than it should be.