Evaluating Dangerous Road Conditions in Tennessee – When Is Notice of Risk Enough?

When can a change in road conditions and navigation constitute a danger to drivers? The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently weighed in on this question when it considered, and reversed, a lower court decision finding that the recent creation of a new intersection was sufficiently dangerous to constitute negligence on the part of the State. The decision sheds lights on the high standards required to bring such a claim against Tennessee authorities.

In Church v. Blalock & Sons, Inc., et al.,  the estates of two families brought claims against the State of Tennessee, alleging that the State was negligent in its failure to adequately warn drivers about a new intersection that had been constructed, leading to unnecessarily dangerous road conditions.  The site of the intersection, in Johnson County, had previously been a long thoroughfare without any crossroads, stoplights, or stop signs. In an effort to redirect traffic and relieve congestion around Mountain City, in 2009 the State installed a new “T” intersection, allowing drivers to turn right to go around the city, or continue straight to go through it.  In January 2010, two elderly drivers were coming down the road when they failed to notice the new stop sign, ran through the intersection, and collided with an oncoming car. They were killed instantly.  The driver of the vehicle had just recovered from back surgery and, although familiar with the old road, had never encountered the new intersection before.

Shortly after their deaths, the estates of both women filed suit, arguing that the State of Tennessee had failed to adequately alert drivers to the new intersection because it had erected only stop signs, and not installed rumble strips or flashing lights.  Pursuant to Tennessee Code, the State of Tennessee can only be held liable if (1) a dangerous road condition is established and (2) the plaintiff shows that the risk of the dangerous condition is foreseeable and the State had notice of such a risk.

At trial, both parties presented extensive expert testimony concerning the sufficiency of the safety precautions put into place to notify drivers of the oncoming intersection. The State had erected stop signs, as well as initial “warning” signs notifying the drivers of a stop ahead.  While the State’s experts argued that this was more than sufficient to put drivers on notice of the intersection and alleviate any possibility of dangerous conditions, the Plaintiff’s experts contended otherwise, arguing that rumble strips and flashing lights were necessary to prevent accidents or injury. The trial court ultimately found the Plaintiff’s evidence sufficient to establish a dangerous road condition, but the Court of Appeals held otherwise, determining that while rumble strips may have given drivers even more notice of the intersection, the State was under no burden to make the intersection absolutely safe.

More importantly, however, the Court of Appeals held that the Plaintiffs had not met their high burden to show that the risk was foreseeable and that the State was on notice of the risk. The court noted that after previous drivers had complained about the difficulty in seeing the oncoming intersection, the State had installed additional signage and warnings about the change and that, since that time, there had been only one reported ticketing of a driver for running the intersection stop sign. The court held that this was “amble signage” to warn drivers of what was ahead of them and the risk of drivers ignoring such signage was not foreseeable. Accordingly, the State was not at fault.

The Tennessee Court of Appeal’s decision suggests the importance of establishing the foreseeability of risk and notice elements of a claim of negligence against the State, particularly when the factual circumstances of a “dangerous” road condition are debatable. Showing that the State was put on notice of the significant danger to a new road change or improvement, and that the risk of injury was thus foreseeable, may be crucial to future negligence claims.

If you are concerned that a recent road condition, change, or closure may have contributed to your injuries, or the injuries of a loved one, Auto accident attorney Eric Beasley may be able to assist you in a dangerous road condition claim.  Mr. Beasley has assisted accident victims in bringing claims against the State and is  available to answer your questions. For more information contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Personal Injury Claims Increase Despite Reduction in Auto Accidents,  Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 15, 2015

Tennessee Auto Accident Guide – What to Do and When, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 2, 2015

Laws An Accident Attorney in Tennessee Knows That Can Help Your Case, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 24, 2014.