Does the State of Texas have a duty to warn drivers about a dangerous road condition? Last week’s decision by a Texas appellate court ruling said that it did.The Dallas court affirmed a jury’s verdict in favor of a motorcyclist who crashed when his wheels hit a large crack in the highway. The trial court capped the $1,200,000 verdict at $250,000, the maximum damages allowed under the Texas Tort Claims Act, and the state appealed.
Brian Milton was traveling on FM Road 148 in Kaufman in 2012 at night. He couldn’t see the deep cracks in the road pictured here until he hit one and crashed his bike into a ditch. Milton had never driven on this road before. He was severely injured.
Testimony from state employees and other evidence showed that the TxDOT clearly knew about the problem before the crash. The responding officer noted the “big cracks” in the roadway.
A few days later, Milton’s wife took this photo of the severely eroded highway. And just one month earlier, a TxDOT worker had taken pictures of the poor road conditions and ordered signs to warn drivers about the failing road but the signs weren’t placed in the correct location.
In addition, the agency had begun roadwork nearby but had not yet made its way to the area of the crash where work orders were in place.
The state’s duties under premises liability law
Under the premises liability theory a property owner is responsible for the condition of its property, depending on the legal status of the injured person and other requirements. That duty is no less important when the state or municipal government is the owner.
The jury found that TxDOT was negligent in this case for the following reasons:
- The cracks in the road posed an unreasonable risk of harm;
- It had actual knowledge about the roadway cracks and the harm they could cause;
- The motorcyclist did not have actual knowledge about the risk of harm;
- The TxDOT failed to exercise ordinary care to protect the motorcyclist by (a) failing to adequately warn Milton about the dangerous road conditions and (b) failing to fix the problem; and
- Its negligence was the proximate cause of Milton’s crash.
The TxDOT was found to be 100 percent liable for its negligence while the jury found none of Milton’s actions contributed as so often happens in one vehicle negligence lawsuits. Therefore Milton is entitled to his full damages.
Tort Claims Act sometimes gives an injured person the right to sue the government
Texas is generally given immunity from liability under the theory of sovereign immunity. However the Tort Claims Act provides a waiver of sovereign immunity in limited situations which allows citizens to sue the state.
Under the Act, the state’s duties equal those that a private entity would owe to a licensee. The plaintiff had to prove that the property owner actually knew about the condition, not just that the problem might occur over time. Testimony from the TxDOT employees, work orders for the site, and photographs taken a month earlier showed that the state agency knew about the cracks and that they posed a danger to drivers.
Hopefully this case will encourage the state to better maintain our highways to prevent future injuries.