The Kentucky Supreme Court recently considered whether a state government has a responsibility to enforce vehicle weight restrictions on portions of its highway. The question arose in a case that resulted in the death of a school bus driver whose bus collided with a tractor-trailer on a narrow non-designated portion of the highway.
The most recent data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reveals the number large truck and buses involved in fatal crashes increased by 8 percent between 2014 and 2015. The 4,311 large vehicles involved in collisions in that latter year represents a 20 percent increase since 2009. During that same time frame (2009 to 2015), the number of injury crashes involving large trucks and buses spiked by 62 percent.
Of the approximately 415,000 police-reported crashes involving large trucks in 2015, there were nearly 3,600 (or 1 percent) that proved fatal and another 83,000 (or 20 percent) that resulted in injury. About 60 percent of all fatal crashes involving large trucks happened on rural roads (like the one that is the center of the Kentucky case) and 25 percent occurred on interstate highways.
In the case out of Kentucky, the crash occurred on U.S. Highway 119 in Lechter County. It’s a stretch of roadway wherein the path narrows and meanders winding across the mountain. Per Kentucky Revised Statute 189.221, the restrictions on vehicle width and length for these kinds of highways, which stipulate vehicles are limited to being under 97 inches in width and 54 feet in length.
Despite these restrictions, one day in September 2000, an over-sized tractor came barreling down the highway. The tractor was 102 inches in width and 68 feet in length. It collided with decedent’s school bus, killing him.
One year later, a representative of his estate filed a claim with the state Board of Claims, alleging the state’es transportation cabinet department of highways was negligent because it failed to enforce the length and width restrictions on U.S. Highway 119. This negligence, plaintiff alleged resulted in decedent’s death. Plaintiff produced evidence showing only four citations had been issued on the mountain over the previous two years, and an officer in charge of patrolling the county testified he had never once been required to travel across the mountain.
The board ruled that while the department did have a ministerial duty to enforce its length and width restrictions, it wasn’t required to stop every over-sized vehicle on the road. Rather, it was required only to act reasonably, and plaintiff ailed to demonstrate the state was negligent in performing this duty to enforce the restrictions on vehicle size.
The case then went down a road nearly as winding as the road on which the two vehicles crashed. A trial court remanded the case back to the board, instructing the board to investigate whether size restrictions were equally enforced on that stretch of road as compared to other areas in the state during the relevant time. Once again, the board affirmed that the state had acted reasonably.
The circuit court reversed the board, finding it was not supported by the evidence. The court explained the department had a ministerial duty to enforce the size restrictions and negligently performed this duty by failing to stop the over-sized truck from traveling on that road to prevent a dangerous condition, i.e., the risk of a truck accident. Trial court remanded the case back to the board to apportion liability.
The state then appealed to the appellate court, which reversed the trial court and affirmed the board’s decision to dismiss the claim, finding no duty existed on which one could base a claim of liability. To be more precise, the state owed a general duty to the public, not specifically to plaintiff or decedent individually, and absent a “special relationship, the agency doesn’t owe an individual citizen the duty to protect them from a crime – in this case, driving an over-sized truck on a narrow mountain road.
Plaintiff appealed to the state supreme court, which affirmed the appellate ruling.
Cases like this, where claims are filed against government agencies, can be particularly fraught with tangled legal issues. Consulting with an experienced injury attorney is imperative.
Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.
Collins v. Commonwealth, April 27, 2017, Supreme Court of Kentucky
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