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Motorcyclist Killed by Texas Highway Sign

In a recent Texas appellate case, a motorcyclist was traveling up United States Highway 54. As he exited 54, he hit a Texas Department of Transportation sign that had fallen into the roadway and was killed. The sign sat off the roadway and was secured to two posts that went down to a concrete base. There were fuse plates that were designed to come off under enough force, like a vehicle hitting the sign. The purpose of these is to reduce the risk of injury. However, it also made the sign particularly susceptible to being damaged by wind and other forces.

A motorist had hit the prior sign, so a new sign was put up at the exit where the motorcyclist was killed. Six months later, high winds affected a number of signs on the highway. The Department of Transportation crew saw that the sign wasn’t level, and they took a look. Two of the fuse plates had broken, so they replaced the fuse plates. They tightened the bolts by hand, although for certain signs they used a torque wrench.

In this case, a 911 operator got a call that a street sign was in the lane of traffic on the exit ramp. The sign was secured by only one post, and there were winds blowing at 40-60 mph. Other calls were also made to 911, and somebody even warned that somebody would be killed by running into the sign.

Police came to the scene and found the motorcyclist’s vehicle and body. He was dead at the scene. His wife and kids sued multiple parties, including the Department of Transportation. At trial, only the DOT and a bolt seller remained in the lawsuit. They focused on how the sign was repaired nine days before the motorcyclist died, and they argued that the bolts should have been tightened with a torque wrench. They claimed the failure to do so prevented the plates from being adequately secured.

They also claimed liability against the company that distributed the bolt. They presented an expert who had the opinion that the bolt was defective and that’s why it failed. The expert argued that a defect existed in the threads so that the nut couldn’t be tightened enough.

The jury didn’t find that the defendant sold the bolt or that it was defective. However, they did find the DOT was negligent. The trial court reduced the damages to $250,000, which was the statutory maximum. The court overruled the DOT’s motion for a directed verdict, which claimed there wasn’t enough evidence to establish notice of a defect in the sign.

The DOT appealed. The appellate court explained that the DOT was protected by sovereign immunity. However, immunity is waived for premises defects. The appellate court explained that a governmental unit owes only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property, which is the duty not to hurt the licensee through grossly negligent, willful, or wanton actions and the duty to make safe any dangerous conditions of which they are aware but the licensee isn’t. However, for special defects, a governmental entity owes the claimant the same duty owed to an invitee under Texas Civil Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.022(b). This is the duty to use ordinary care to eliminate or reduce an unreasonable risk of injury.

The plaintiffs needed to prove that the DOT had actual or constructive notice of the defect and failed to use ordinary care by failing to repair or adequately warn of the condition. In this case, the defendant owed a duty to reasonably inspect the sign, even though it believed it had repaired the sign. However, the plaintiffs had shown that the visual inspection method may have been faulty, but they didn’t present evidence of what a proper inspection would show. They agreed that the defendant didn’t have notice and therefore didn’t have an opportunity to fix the condition or warn. The case was reversed.

If you are hurt in a motorcycle accident, the experienced San Antonio attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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