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Dangerous Conditions on the Road: MoDOT's Responsibility in Highway Accidents

The economic recession has forced federal, state and local governments to cut back in some of the same ways that individual citizens have had to cut back: some good ideas have been put on the back-burner, and some commonplace maintenance projects have been put on hold. But what happens when someone is injured in a car accident because the government couldn't afford to improve a road, replace missing signage or conduct a traffic study?

Although most people are familiar with lawsuits in which someone who has been wrongfully injured sues the person who is responsible, many do not realize that if a division of the government is to blame, then the government, too, can be held responsible. Thus, when accidents occur on the state's highways, in addition to claims against the driver(s) who contributed to the accident, injury victims may be able to hold the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) accountable for their negligence with a claim against the Highways and Transportation Commission, the six-member board that governs MoDOT. An injured party may have a claim against MoDOT if their negligence in not properly designing, repairing or maintaining the road contributed to the accident.

Sovereign Immunity

Generally, governments at the state and national level hold sovereign immunity-that is, they are immune to lawsuits. Although the concept dates back centuries to the days when people were ruled by kings and queens, today the concept keeps the courts free of many lawsuits. If you don't like what the government has done, you generally take your concerns to the ballot box, not the courtroom.

But what about those instances when the government's negligence has injured someone? For these situations, states have enacted laws waiving sovereign immunity in certain instances. Missouri's law, section 537.600 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, allows the state to be sued in instances involving dangerous conditions of government property. In practical terms, that could mean a poorly-designed road, bridge or overpass; an intersection without signage; a road in need of maintenance or a host of other issues involving government property.

A Balance of Justice and Public Services

The history of sovereign immunity in Missouri shows the efforts to balance the public's need for justice with the government's ability to provide basic services. In September of 1977, the Supreme Court of Missouri struck down all forms of sovereign immunity in the state, in the case of Jones v. State Highway Commission. Less than a year later, the General Assembly reinstated sovereign immunity, but carved out two important exceptions relating to traffic accidents: citizens may sue for dangerous conditions of government-owned property (roads and highways in particular) and negligent operation of motorized vehicles by government employees.

Initially, the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted these exceptions to apply only when the state had obtained liability insurance to protect itself against such lawsuits, but in 1985 the legislature acted again, adding language to the law indicating that the state could be sued regardless of whether it had insurance or not.

To prevail in a lawsuit against MoDOT, the injured party must establish four things:

  1. That the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury
  2. That the injury directly resulted from the dangerous condition
  3. That the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm of the kind of injury that was incurred
  4. That a public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition in sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition

The third and fourth elements have important implications for the general public. They say, in essence, that MoDOT must be aware of the dangerous condition and the harm that could come from it. Although governments have a responsibility to regularly inspect their highways, bridges, signage and other infrastructure, the public should also be vigilant about reporting problems when they are first noticed.

Other Important Considerations

Frequently, auto accidents are caused by more than one factor. For example, a negligent driver may rear-end another car, but the poorly-designed off-ramp on which they were driving may have contributed to the accident. Our legal system allows for a sharing of the responsibility in situations like this, which is called comparative negligence. In such situations, a court might hold the negligent driver responsible for 70 percent of the damages and find MoDOT responsible for the other 30 percent.

Because many parties may have contributed to an accident and there is a limit on damages that can be awarded against the state, it's important to discuss the individual facts of any accident with an attorney, who can help sort out which parties may be responsible.

The public has an important role to play in ensuring traffic safety is a top priority for governments at every level. So if you see a problem with a road, bridge, sign or other traffic-related infrastructure, take the time to report it to authorities. You could be saving the life of someone you know. Additionally, if you or someone you know has been injured in any sort of accident, talk to an experienced lawyer who understands the legal responsibilities the government may have and can advise you on your own legal rights.

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