This month, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Skagit County may not escape liability for faulty road design that led to a car crash in which the passenger was seriously injured, merely because the driver was also negligent. Lowman v. Wilbur, et al., No. 86584-1, 2013 Wash. LEXIS 618 (August 8, 2013).
In Lowman, Jennifer Wilbur was driving along a two-lane county road with Nathan Lowman in the passenger seat. Driving down a steep, winding stretch of the road, Wilbur lost control and hit a utility pole that was less than five feet from the edge of the roadway. Skagit County’s standards require a ten foot “clear zone” between the edge of the road and utility poles. Passenger Lowman sustained severe injuries to his right arm, including a permanent disfigurement. Evidence showed that Wilbur was speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol.
Skagit County moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that passenger Lowman could not prove “legal causation”. Legal causation is grounded in policy determinations as to how far the consequences of a defendant’s acts should extend. The court looks to “logic, common sense, justice, policy and precedent” to determine whether a defendant’s breach of duty is too remote or insubstantial to trigger liability. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals, Division One, affirmed.
Lowman appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court which reversed the Court of Appeals. In reaching its decision, the Court relied heavily on Keller v. City of Spokane, 146 Wn2d 237 (2002), which held that the duty to design and maintain reasonably safe roadways extends to all persons, whether negligent or fault-free. The Court held that while Keller was a case concerning duty, its reasoning applies equally well to and supports its finding of legal causation. The Court noted that Keller was a clarification of Washington law and corrected lower court suggestions that municipalities need not design or maintain roads to protect against negligent or reckless conduct, including conduct by those who may be comparatively at fault for their injuries.
The Court’s reasoning is sound. One reason a municipality has a duty to place utility poles a safe distance from the road is because it is foreseeable that vehicles will occasionally drive off the roadway and hit utility poles, causing serious injury to the occupants. When a vehicle drives off the roadway, it is almost always due to negligence on someone’s part. Whether that negligence arises from driving under the influence, speeding, fiddling with the radio, texting or otherwise, no negligence can be characterized as “too remote or insubstantial to trigger liability.” Logic, common sense, justice and policy considerations all support the Court decision. The Court wisely took the opportunity to correct unsound lower court precedent.