Issues Of Fact As To Whether Placement of Highway Billboard Is An Unreasonably Dangerous Condition for Motorist Saves Claims Of Paralyzed Mother Of Three Minor Children.
The case Falcon v. Louisiana Dept. of Transportation arises out of a motor vehicle accident involving a mother and her three children. On the day of the accident the mother was driving her vehicle with her three minor children as passengers. When she approached a T-shaped intersection, she allegedly ran a stop sign and then after attempting to turn left her vehicle was broadsided by a truck traveling on the intersecting highway. Although her children only sustained minor injuries, she suffered a severe closed head injury, which ultimately required that she be legally interdicted under the curatorship of her father “Plaintiff”.
Plaintiff filed a personal injury action on behalf of his daughter and her three children alleging that defendants’ placement of a large billboard at an intersection of two roads constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition to motorists. Named as defendants were the State of Louisiana, through the Department of Transportation and Development (“DOTD”), the owner of the land on which sign was erected and its insurer, as well as the owners of the sign and their insurers. The billboard in question measured sixteen (16) feet in width by approximately eight (8) feet in height and was alleged to have extended two feet into the State's right-of-way along La. Hwy. 1 in violation of La. R.S. 48:461.2. This statute provides, in part:
No outdoor advertising shall be erected or maintained within six hundred sixty feet of the nearest edge of the right of way and visible from the main traveled way of the interstate or primary highways in this state....
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that the entire lawsuit should be dismissed because the placement of the billboard did not present an unreasonably dangerous condition to motorists and because the mother failed to act as a reasonable motorist. The trial court granted summary judgment as to the landowner, its insurer and the DOTD, but denied the motion as to owners of the sign and their insurers. With respect to those entities, the court found that there existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the billboard contributed to the accident. Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s dismissal of the landowner, its insurer and the DOTD on the basis that it was not appropriate to rule as a matter of law that an uncontested sight obstruction did not constitute an unreasonably dangerous condition. The only issues before the appellate court were whether there were genuine issues of material fact (1) as to whether the billboard presented an unreasonably dangerous condition and (2) as to whether the mother failed to act as a reasonably prudent motorist under the circumstances.
The appellate court first considered the issue of whether the billboard presented an unreasonably dangerous condition. The court noted that it was undisputed that at a certain point along the highway, the placement of the billboard obstructed the view of motorists. Thus, the only issue was whether the obstruction was sufficient to constitute an unreasonably dangerous condition. Finding that this inquiry was inherently a factual determination, the appellate court reversed the finding of the trial court and held that there were genuine issues of fact as to whether the billboard obscured the view of the mother thereby creating an unreasonable risk of harm.
The court next addressed the issue of whether the mother failed to act as a reasonably prudent motorist under the circumstances. Defendants argued that to defeat summary judgment Plaintiff had to overcome two separate presumptions: (1) that a left-turning motorist involved in a collision that occurs across the center line is at fault in causing the accident; and (2) that a motorist who runs a stop sign resulting in a collision is similarly at fault in causing the accident. Plaintiffs countered that there were factual disputes with respect to each contention put forth by defendants. First, the other driver in the accident testified that he did not know which direction the mother intended to travel and the investigating officer refused to state that she was definitively attempting to execute a left-hand turn. Second, one of the mother's daughters, who was a passenger in vehicle, testified that just prior to the accident her mother stopped at the stop sign. Lastly, Plaintiffs contended that it was the placement of the billboard that caused the accident – not the mother’s alleged failure to act in a reasonably prudent manner. The appellate court found that these issues of fact were sufficient to defeat defendants’ summary judgment motion and reversed the ruling of the trial court.
Take Away: Courts are reluctant to uphold the dismissal of a case via summary judgment when there are arguable issues of material fact as to the events and circumstances surrounding an accident, especially where a plaintiff has sustained catastrophic injuries.
This article was co-authored by John Garrett, an associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.