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Municipality’s Duty to Maintain Roadways Extends Beyond Asphalt

Posted Wednesday, August 24, 2016 by Pivotal Law Group

stop signMunicipalities have a duty to maintain their roadways in a reasonably safe condition for ordinary travel. In a recent decision, the Washington State Supreme Court held this duty extends beyond the roadways themselves to the surrounding areas.

In June 2008, Guy Wuthrich was riding a motorcycle on Avondale Road, approaching the intersection at 159th Street. Around that same time, Christa Gilland was driving on 159th Street. Ms. Gilland was controlled by a stop sign, while Mr. Wuthrich was not. As she approached the intersection, Ms. Gilland waited for traffic, but did not see Mr. Wuthrich approaching. When Ms. Gilland pulled into the intersection, she collided with Mr. Wuthrich, seriously injuring him.

Mr. Wuthrich filed a complaint against both Ms. Gilland and King County. With respect to the County, he alleged it was responsible for his injuries because overgrown blackberry bushes obstructed Ms. Gilland’s view of traffic. The trial court dismissed Mr. Wuthrich’s case against the County, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In Wuthrich v. King County, 91555-5 (Jan. 28, 2016), the Washington State Supreme Court reversed those decisions. The Court noted that municipalities have a well-established duty to maintain their roadways in a condition safe for ordinary travel. This duty is not limited to the roadways themselves, and does not exempt municipalities from responsibility where the unsafe condition is caused by a roadside condition like vegetation or other sight obstructions.

In doing so, the Court overruled past cases holding or suggesting otherwise. Those cases were decided when municipalities had “sovereign immunity,” in other words, immunity from being sued. As a result, those cases found municipalities only had a duty to warn or protect against conditions that were “inherently dangerous” or “misleading,” and that roads were not rendered inherently dangerous solely because of obstructive natural vegetation. Now, municipalities are held to a higher “reasonableness” standard, meaning they must act reasonably in keeping their roadways safe for ordinary travel.

The Court also held that to prove causation, i.e. that the municipality’s failure to act caused Mr. Wuthrich’s injuries, Mr. Wuthrich only needed to show the municipality had notice of the condition, not necessarily notice of prior incidents at that intersection.

As a result, Mr. Wuthrich’s claims against the County should not have been dismissed, and he should have had the opportunity to prove at trial that (1) the road was not reasonably safe for ordinary travel, and (2) the municipality did not make reasonable efforts to correct the hazardous condition.

Photo credit: Kevin Wong, used under the Creative Commons license