Secondary “Stop Ahead” Warning Measure Makes Driver Liable in Traffic Accident

In Matte v. Imperial Fire & Casualty Insurance Co., the Louisiana Court of Appeal agreed with the decision of the 13th Judicial District Court, Parish of Evangeline that the City of Ville Platte (City) was not liable for a car crash. The crash in question occurred on August 20, 2008, when Michael Jenkins was driving in Ville Platte. Jenkins approached LaSalle Street when, behind a tree, he noted a flashing red light. Despite this sign, Jenkins continued into the intersection, where his vehicle struck the car containing Dana Matte and two passengers. All three suffered injuries.

Matte alleged that the City had failed to maintain its right-of-way because foliage blocked view of the stop sign. The City defended itself by showing it had two traffic control devices at the intersection: the stop sign, and a flashing red light that was more visible to drivers. The City asked the district court to decide that it was not liable while Allstate, the underinsured motorist insurer for Matte’s employer, opposed the motion. The 13th Judicial District Court, Parish of Evangeline granted the City’s motion.

Louisiana statutes limit liability of public bodies “unless the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the particular vice or defect which caused the damage prior to the occurrence, and the public entity has had a reasonable opportunity to remedy the defect and has failed to do so.” The City did not dispute that it knew a tree blocked the stop sign. Instead, it showed in a photograph that the flashing red light and stop sign were clearly visible to Jenkins from where he approached the intersection. A flashing red light means that drivers must stop.

Jenkins said that trees blocked both signals, but he estimated that he saw the flashing red light about five seconds before he reached the LaSalle Street intersection but believed that a flashing red signal meant the driver should exercise caution and slow down.

The City Street Commissioner, who is familiar with the intersection, stated he had never witnessed a time when the foliage obscured the flashing red light for a southbound driver. The district court, which said it was familiar with the intersection, agreed. Upon review, the court of appeal analyzed the evidence received by the district court. The City photographs showed that Jenkins should have seen the flashing red light in enough time to respond, but Jenkins did not believe he had to stop at the flashing red light. The reviewing court concluded that the district court was correct when it determined that Jenkins’ negligence caused the accident.

This conclusion means that even if one traffic control device at the intersection may not always be easy to see, a second, more visible device providing the same warning shields the municipal government from liability. Because the City installed the flashing light, it was not liable for an accident when at least the flashing light was visible to a driver who had time to stop.

Auto accidents and the many types of insurance policies that may cover them are complicated matters. Specialized policies and coverage practices are not common knowledge. Governments may be liable, but it may require added knowledge of the facts and the limitations to immunity from suit. An experienced lawyer knows what to look for to obtain the best possible recovery.

If you have been harmed by the acts of another, call the Berniard Law Firm toll free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help you get the recovery you deserve.

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