From the desk of Kyle Riley: Legal causation is an element of a negligence claim, which is grounded in policy determinations as to how far the consequences of a defendant’s acts should extend. Legal causation allows a court to limit a defendant’s liability based on public policy. A recent Washington Supreme Court case holds that even intoxicated parties are owed a legal duty, by municipalities and counties, to have a reasonably safe roadway; and an unsafe road design can be the legal cause of a motor vehicle accident involving an intoxicated driver.
Claims Pointer: Insurers and their attorneys should be aware that even when a driver is negligent in operation of his or her vehicle, a passenger that is injured may recover against the municipality or county for negligent maintenance and design of the road.
Lowman v. Wilbur, 178 Wash.2d 165, 309 P.3d 387 (2013).
Nathan Lowman (“Lowman”) and Jennifer Wilbur (“Wilbur”) left a bar together. With Lowman as a passenger, Wilbur drove along a two lane road. As Wilbur drove down a steep, winding hill, she lost control of her vehicle, which left the road and hit a utility pole. The utility pole was 4.47 feet from the edge of the roadway. Lowman sustained severe injuries, including the disfigurement of his right arm.
Lowman brought a negligence claim against Wilbur, Skagit County and Puget Sound Energy (“PSE”), among others. As to PSE and Skagit County, Lowman alleged negligent placement of the utility pole. PSE and Skagit County filed a joint motion for summary judgment solely on the issue of legal causation. Lowman presented evidence that the Skagit County utility pole placement standards require a 10 foot clear zone between the edge of the road and utility poles. There was also evidence in the record that Wilbur was speeding and driving under the influence at the time of the accident.
The trial court granted PSE and Skagit County’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that the placement of the utility pole was not the legal cause of Lowman’s injuries. Lowman appealed and lost. Lowman petitioned to the Washington Supreme Court for a review of the case, and the Court granted review.
The Court held that legal causation did not preclude holding PGE and Skagit County liable for the placement of the utility pole. In reaching its conclusion, the Court looked to the holding in Keller v. City of Spokane, that a municipality owes a duty to all persons, whether negligent or free from fault, to build and maintain its roadways in a condition that is reasonably safe for ordinary travel. 146 Wash.2d 237, 44 P.3d 845 (2002). The policy behind Keller, governed the legal causation analysis. The Court rejected the argument that a negligently placed pole could not be the legal cause of a resulting injury. The Court remanded the case for further proceedings, and noted that the jury could limit or negate liability, on the basis of comparative fault or failure to prove factual causation.
Note: This opinion has not been published. It is provided to demonstrate ow the court approaches the issues involved in the case.
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