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Defective Highway & Sidewalk Design & Construction

The Law Firm of Reed & Mansfield, Attorneys  Personal Injury & Property Damage, Las Vegas, NV

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Million Dollar Advocates Forum

DEFECTIVE DESIGN

Some highways and sidewalks are more dangerous than others because of the physical characteristics of the highway and surrounding median and shoulders or because they are more likely to encourage drivers to make mistakes.

For example, there is now a traffic light at the Railroad Pass Casino on U.S. 95 just outside of Boulder City. For decades prior to this traffic light, serious auto collisions occurred with depressing frequency as cars entering or exiting that casino from the opposite lane of traffic got frustrated waiting for a traffic break to cross the lane next to the casino. Thinking calmly while reading or writing this website it seems like drivers shouldn't get frustrated waiting for traffic breaks and should just be patient. But people are social animals and when traffic is backed up behind you and maybe people are honking and five minutes go by without finding a traffic break, it is predictable that some drivers will get a bit hyper and take a risk they shouldn't. Isn't it better to install a traffic light in a case like this rather than cart people off to the hospital or morgue on a regular basis?

We believe that a particularly unsafe high way design is where you have a divided highway separated by a dirt or grass median that is low in the center. So far, so good. But if there is an overpass support in the center of the median and no guard rails that is unsafe because a car losing control and entering the median will be channeled into the low center area and then strike the support post. The support post should have a guard rail or a dirt mound around it as a safety precaution.

In early September of 2015 it looked like guardrails on both sides of the U.S. 95 median going North out of Las Vegas are being installed part of the way up to the Kyle Canyon turn-off (toward Mt. Charleston). These guardrails didn't use to be there and several years ago a horrific accident was caused when a car crossed over the median. Following that fatal collision, the governor found funds to install some guardrails. However, it now looks like on some part of that highway there is a barrier on only one side of the road. That works fine if there is pavement all the way up to the barrier and if light post and sign post sit on top of the barrier. However, in other parts of this stretch of highway, the single barrier is steel cables and wood posts on one side of a depressed dirt area. Light posts and sign posts arise from the low area of the ditch. The steel cable barrier will prevent (in most cases) head on collisions but won't prevent a car on the side without the barrier from crashing into the light posts or sign posts. A car whose driver has lost control has a tendency to end up steering down hill. So a light post or sign post at the low part of a ditch dividing the two sides of the highway without barriers on both sides constitutes a foreseeable danger. 

Unfortunately, highway funds are limited and safer roads cost more money. Ideally rural highways should be two lanes in each direction with either a very wide median or a median with a barrier down the center or at the edges. Light posts and heavy duty sign posts should either be behind barriers or protected by barrels of sand, or mounds of dirt. The government entity responsible for the highway will argue that the less safe design is reasonable given cost and other consideration. It may be a jury question whether that is a reasonable argument.

Also, a few years ago in the Las Vegas area a freak fatality occurred when a car went out of control on the Summerlin Parkway. It went into the decorative gravel or gravel like stones on the side of the road. This gravel was large sized and a big chunk was kicked by the up out of control car and it went thru the window of another vehicle and killed an occupant. Arguably, using "gravel" stones two or three inches in diameter is unreasonably dangerous.

In a recent court case in Maryland, there was a multi-million dollar award against the State of Maryland for negligent design and maintenance of a road, Pennsylvania Avenue. A small stretch of the road lacked sidewalks or guardrails. A pedestrian was killed as she walked on the unprotected shoulder when a car driver carelessly went on to the shoulder. The court held that the state should have provided either guardrails or sidewalks on the stretch where the pedestrian was killed. Such a case would be more difficult in Nevada because:

  1. Nevada severely limits the amount a state or local government can be sued for, and
  2. Because Nevada is more rural a court might not reason the same way. However, in an urban areas of Nevada such a suit might be possible, especially if there was a contractor or engineering firm responsible for the lack of pedestrian safeguards.
  3. BUT some highways in Nevada are operated by the federal government, for example within the Lake Mead National Recreations Area, and the federal government does not place a limit on the amount it can be sued for on a negligence claim.
  4. AND a private highway contractor may not share the liability limits of the State of Nevada.

Happily, there are also examples of good highway design (safe highway design) in Las Vegas, especially compared to other countries. If you Google pictures of the crash which killed Princess Diana you will see that her car crashed into support pillars as it was driving in an underpass in Paris. In this unsafe Paris underpass (unsafe highway design), the support pillar went from highway level to ceiling. If there had been a guard rail running the length of the pillars or if the pillars had been connected by concrete dividers her car would have glanced off the median dividers and she would likely be alive today. If you drive east on Desert Inn, after you cross Paradise you will enter an underpass. In this underpass the bottoms of the concrete support pillars are encased in a smooth concrete wall for the first few feet above highway level. This is the design that would have saved Princess Di.

PEOPLE KILLED AT LAS VEGAS BUS STOPS BY OUT OF CONTROL DRIVERS

We read with depressing frequency about people killed at a Las Vegas bus stop by out of control drivers. I believe that part of the problem is that the bus stops have a sort of clam shell construction that doesn't let people escape from the backs or the sides if they see an out of control vehicle coming at them. There seem to be more people killed accidentally at bus stop by out of control drivers than people killed walking on a regular sidewalk by out of control drivers. Although I am not aware of any court cases, this may well be a good design defect case. An additional problem with the bus stop shelters is that city planners want to place them fairly close to intersections to discourage people from jaywalking to get to them. This seems to place them right where a a left turning vehicle from a perpendicular street will swing wide onto the sidewalk if the driver is going too fast and is not alert. 

We would like to see guardrails placed in front of bus shelters. 

DEFECTIVE CONSTRUCTION

One type of accident that happens repeatedly is that a car drifts off to the right because of driver inattention or slippery conditions. The passenger side wheels are now off the highway. The driver attempts to fix the situation by turning the wheel to the left. If the highway and shoulder are even with each other and the shoulder is not too soft, the driver usually corrects without a problem. But, if the highway surface is raised a couple of inches or more compared to the shoulder, or if the shoulder is soft, the front passenger wheel and tire are "stuck." The passenger wheels don't get back on the road. In this case the driver should brake and slow down. However, there is a predictable natural instinctive reaction on the part of many drivers to just turn the wheel more to the left. Suddenly, either because the shoulder rises up or the car loses speed, the passenger front tire climbs back onto the highway and the car shoots off to the left into oncoming traffic or off the left side of the road.

Ideally, in highway construction the new shoulder construction should keep right up with the new highway construction. Unfortunately, the new shoulder construction sometimes lags well behind.

DEFECTIVE HIGHWAY OR CONSTRUCTION CLAIMS

Defective highway and construction claims are difficult and remind of us of slip/trip and fall cases. In both types of claims there is a hazard which the defense will argue most people navigated safely. Yet, also in both types of claims there is a hazard which predictably caused injury. Many attorneys refuse to consider defective highway or construction claims. Our firm is happy to talk to you about a claim of this type that you may have.