Summary Judgment for Road Designer Where Driver Ignores Existing Signs and Causes Wreck

On November 16, 2012 in Bennett v. Department of Transportation, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed that the Department of Transportation (“GDOT”) was entitled to summary judgment in a case in which the Plaintiffs claimed that the failure to provide proper traffic control devices at an intersection caused the injuries they sustained in a car accident. GDOT was not liable because the evidence established that the accident occurred as a result of the other driver’s admitted disregard of clearly posted stop signs and flashing red lights.

Janice Bennett and Denise Johnson sued GDOT for personal injuries they sustained in a car accident. Another driver, John Ellison, was driving his car northbound on State Road 11 in Lanier County near the intersection of Highway 38. Ms. Bennett and Ms. Johnson were driving westbound on Highway 38. As Ellison approached the intersection, he saw plaintiffs’ car approaching from his right side. The intersection contained two clearly visible stop signs and two overhead flashing red lights indicating that Ellison was required to stop. Ellison saw one of the stop signs and saw Johnson’s vehicle approaching the intersection and was aware that the stop sign directed him to stop but failed to do so. According to Ellison, the other vehicles approaching the intersection appeared to be slowing down so he thought he would able to get through without the need to stop. Upon entering the intersection, Ellison struck the Plaintiffs’ car.

In support of their claims of negligence against GDOT, Johnson and Bennett presented the testimony of an expert traffic engineer who opined that a stop/go light should have been installed to control traffic at the intersection more effectively. The expert further opined that the failure to incorporate a stop/go light amounted to a defective design, caused confusion as to how the intersection worked, and was a contributing cause to the subject accident. The expert acknowledged, however, that the two stop signs and flashing red lights were present and visibly unobstructed at the intersection.

The trial judge granted summary judgment to GDOT and the Court of Appeals agreed. Although the Court of Appeals recognized that there may be more than one proximate cause of an accident, “where a driver missed several indications of a hazard, jurors cannot speculate that putting up a sign about the hazard would have made any difference.” This accident was not caused by GDOT’s failure to post adequate signs or a traffic light, the court wrote, but rather, the accident was caused by Ellison’s admitted disregard of the stop signs and flashing red lights that were posted at the intersection. GDOT’s acts were not the proximate cause of the injuries sustained by Bennett and Johnson. At most, the evidence showed, according to the Court, that GDOT failed to do all that could have been done to assure that drivers on State Road 11 took heed of the stop sign at the intersection. This does not excuse Ellison’s failure to stop where clearly directed to do so by the rules of the road.

This case will be helpful in lawsuits in which the plaintiffs allege, supported by an expert traffic engineer, that additional signage would have prevented an accident. So long as the signage on the roadway is sufficient to notify a driver of his or her obligations, and the driver is or should be aware of those obligations, the lack of “one more sign” cannot be the cause of an accident and a jury should not be allowed to speculate that it might have been.

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About the Author

Michael Rust graduated from Emory University in 1980 and Emory University School of Law in 1983 where he was Notes and Comments editor of the Emory Law Journal (Law Review). Since that time, he has maintained an active trial practice in the state of Georgia both in State and Federal Courts. Mr. Rust teaches litigation as part of Emory University School of Law’s annual Trial Practice Program. He has received AV rating from Martindale Hubble, the highest rating afforded to lawyers by their peers.