Pennsylvania Record

Friday, December 13, 2019

Commonwealth Court affirms PennDOT’s liability in fatal accident case ending with plaintiffs’ verdict

By Jon Campisi | Jan 23, 2014

Pa. commonwealth court judge mary hannah leavitt

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has denied an appeal by the state

Department of Transportation in a case in which the agency was sued over a crash at a busy western Pennsylvania intersection, an accident that resulted in the deaths of four-people following a two-vehicle accident.

The three-judge panel in its Jan. 22 opinion affirmed two prior orders by the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas, one denying PennDOT’s motion for summary judgment and the second denying the defendant’s post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The litigation stemmed from an Oct. 24, 2009, accident involving two vehicles at the intersection of state routes 51 and 168 in South Beaver Township, Beaver County.

One vehicle, a Dodge Neon operated by Louis Young, IV, struck the passenger side of a Ford F-150 pickup truck as the pickup was crossing Route 51.

PennDOT’s expert estimated that the Neon was traveling at 116 miles per hour at the time of the collision, which took the lives of Young, his passengers, Bryan Atkinson and Joshua Tate, and Jessica DeMarco, who was the passenger and wife of Daniel DeMarco, the driver of the Ford.

Daniel DeMarco survived the accident but was seriously injured.

At the time of the accident, there were stop signs on Route 168, but none on Route 51.

The intersection is not typical, with Route 168 jogging across Route 51 at a “skewed” angle of about 50 degrees, the record shows.

Records further show that there had been about 45 collisions, several involving fatalities, in the decade before the accident.

Because of its history, township officials and residents appealed to PennDOT for a traffic study to look into the installation of a traffic signal; the agency stated it would only conduct the study if the municipality agreed to finance the installation of the traffic signal, the record shows.

After the accident, Daniel DeMarco and the estates of Jessica DeMarco, Young, Tate and Atkinson filed suit against PennDOT over claims that the absence of a traffic signal at the intersection was a major factor in causing the accident and that the agency failed to maintain its roads in a safe manner.

In September 2011, PennDOT moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to install a traffic signal and that the Neon’s high rate of speed was the superseding cause of the accident.

The trial judge subsequently denied summary judgment.

Jurors ended up finding Young 67 percent liable for the accident and PennDOT 33 percent liable.

In a post-trial motion, PennDOT maintained that it had adopted a regulation that transferred the duty to install traffic signals on state roads to municipalities.

PennDOT ultimately argued that it was the responsibility of the municipality in which the accident occurred to install the traffic light.

The appeals judges pointed out that while the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code grants both PennDOT and localities the ability to install traffic signals and other traffic control devices on state roads, a municipality must obtain PennDOT approval to install a traffic device on a state road.

By contrast, PennDOT doesn’t need municipal permission to install traffic control devices.

PennDOT attorneys argued that it couldn’t be held liable for accidents where the absence of a traffic signal device has made the highway unsafe because its regulation has transferred responsibility for such traffic signals to municipalities.

The trial court held that the regulation didn’t relieve PennDOT of its duty to maintain a state highway in a “safe” condition, records show.

PennDOT argued that the trial court erred given case law.

The plaintiffs, meanwhile, countered that the regulation doesn’t effect the outcome of their case because PennDOT’s duty extends beyond the installation of traffic signals.

They argued that the agency has a duty to make state roads safe, and that the duty cannot be delegated by a regulation.

“Plaintiffs argue the key question is not whether PennDOT had a duty to install a traffic signal but whether the intersection in question constituted a dangerous condition, rendering each state road not safe for its intended purpose,” the appellate ruling stated.

The appeals judges wrote that they agree with PennDOT that the vehicle code doesn’t require it to install traffic control signals, but they determined that the agency still has a duty to ensure that state highways are safe for their “reasonably foreseen uses.”

“Indeed, no agency can, by regulation, relieve itself of a duty of care or expand its own sovereign immunity beyond the scope allowed by the legislature,” the panel wrote. “In summary, the failure to remedy a dangerous condition amounts to a breach of PennDOT’s duty of care.”

The appeals judges further noted that what constitutes a dangerous condition is a question of fact for the jury.

“Here, Plaintiffs introduced evidence sufficient for a jury to find that the intersection of State Routes 51 and 168 was a dangerous condition due to the design of the intersection and the absence of a traffic signal,” the ruling states. “The jury so found.”

The appellate panel determined that the trial court didn’t err in denying PennDOT’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

On the second issue, the plaintiffs asserted that even if a criminal or negligent act of a third party, such as speeding, occurred, a defendant is not absolved from liability if the act was foreseeable.

The plaintiffs argued that PennDOT was not entitled to summary judgment because it is foreseeable that vehicles will speed, and foreseeability is a question of fact for the jury to decide.

The appeals judges agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument.

The decision was written by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.

The other participating jurists were Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini and Senior Judge Rochelle S. Friedman.

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