Negligence • Causation • Liability • Motor Vehicles • Personal Injury • Foreseeability

Tate v. Commonwealth, PICS Case No. 14-0095 (Pa. Commw. Jan. 22, 2014) Leavitt, J. (15 pages).

Evidence was sufficient for jury to find that intersection was a “dangerous condition” and that speeding on the highway was foreseeable. Denial of motion for summary judgment and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict affirmed.

Two vehicles collided at an intersection of two state-owned roads. Route 51, a six-lane road with a posted speed of 55 m.p.h., had no traffic signal at the intersection. Route 168, a two-lane road with a posted speed limit of 45 m.p.h., had a stop sign. Four of five occupants were killed, and one was seriously injured. The vehicle driving on the six-lane road was traveling at 116 m.p.h. when the collision occurred.

Plaintiffs’ estates sued PennDOT for negligence, alleging that the absence of a traffic signal at the intersection was a substantial factor in causing the accident and that PennDOT failed to maintain its roads in a safe manner. PennDOT moved for summary judgment, arguing it had no duty to install a traffic signal, and alternatively, that the vehicle traveling at 116 m.p.h. was the superseding cause of the accident. The court denied the motion.

The jury found PennDOT 33 percent liable for the accident. PennDOT moved for post-trial relief, seeking judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court denied the motion.

On appeal, PennDOT contended that it adopted a regulation that transferred the duty to install traffic signals on state roads to local municipalities, and that, therefore, it could not be held liable for the absence of a traffic signal at the intersection. Alternatively, PennDot argued that one of the vehicle’s excessive speed was the superseding cause of the accident. The Commonwealth Court affirmed.

A Commonwealth agency is liable when there is a “dangerous condition” of highways under its jurisdiction. Whether there is a dangerous condition is a question of fact for the jury.

While PennDOT is not required by law to install traffic control devices, and the regulation it adopted shifts the financial responsibility for installing traffic signals onto local municipalities, PennDOT retains a duty to ensure that its highways are safe for their reasonably foreseen uses. The failure to remedy a dangerous condition amounts to a breach of PennDOT’s duty of care. Plaintiffs introduced evidence sufficient for a jury to find that the intersection was a dangerous condition due to the design of the intersection and the absence of a traffic signal.

Furthermore, even a criminal or negligent act of a third party, such as speeding, does not absolve a defendant from liability if the act was foreseeable. Plaintiff’s expert established that speeding was a common problem at the intersection and there had been 45 motor vehicle accidents, including several fatalities, over a ten-year period. This evidence created a question of fact for the jury as to whether a fatal accident at this intersection involving a speeding vehicle was foreseeable.