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§31.14 Road and Bridge Cases

The Case: Helton v. Knox County , 922 S.W.2d 877 (Tenn. 1996).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff, the widow of a driver killed after his car went off a hundred-year-old, single- lane bridge, brought a claim against the Defendant county, alleging the county was liable for her husbands death because of its failure to erect rails on the side of the bridge, creating an unsafe driving condition on the road.

The Bottom Line:

  • "The first question is whether the bridge was in a 'defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition' so as to waive the county's immunity under § 29-20-203. A general principle prevalent in both the common law preceding the enactment of the GTLA and in the Act itself is that governmental entities are generally immune from liability for any injury resulting from the exercise of governmental or proprietary functions. [Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-201(a) (Supp. 1995)] specifically restates this principle: 'Except as may be otherwise provided in this chapter, all governmental entities shall be immune from suit for any injury which may result from the activities of such governmental entities wherein such governmental entities are engaged in the exercise and discharge of any of their functions, governmental or proprietary.' The GTLA then removes governmental immunity 'for injuries resulting from the negligent operation by any employee of a motor vehicle or other equipment,' 'for any injury caused by a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition of any street, alley, sidewalk or highway ... includ[ing] traffic control devices thereon,' 'for any injury caused by the dangerous or defective condition of any public building, structure, dam, reservoir or other public improvement,' and 'for injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of any employee' with numerous exceptions. Thus, the GTLA is in derogation of common law and must be strictly construed. Mowdy v. Kelly, [667 S.W.2d 489, 491 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983)]." 922 S.W.2d at 881-82 (footnotes omitted).
  • "The plaintiff, in the case under review, brought suit under § 29-20-203(a), which removes immunity for injury caused by defective, unsafe, or dangerous highways. She contends that the bridge did not have guardrails. This contention, supported by the expert testimony that guardrails would have prevented Helton's car from going over the edge, constitutes her theory of liability." Id. at 882.
  • "Whether a particular site is defective, unsafe, or dangerous for purposes of waiving governmental immunity under § 29-20-203 is a question of fact. The case under submission is similar to the recently decided case of Kirby v. Macon County, [892 S.W.2d 403 (Tenn. 1994)]. In Kirby, the bridge was little-used and in a rural area. Much of its traffic included farm equipment that could not have used the bridge had standard metal guardrails been installed. Accordingly, wooden wheel guards had been installed on the bridge. At the time of the accident, the surface of the bridge was iced over, causing the plaintiff's vehicle to slide over the edge. At the specific site where Kirby's vehicle left the bridge, some of the wooden wheel guards were missing. Kirby sued under two theories: first, failure to install guardrails was a negligent omission under § 29-20-205; and second, the absence of standard guardrails made the bridge defective, unsafe, or dangerous under § 29-20-203(a). We found (1) that the decision to install wooden wheel guards instead of standard metal guardrails was within the discretionary function exception of § 29-20-205 so that governmental immunity was preserved; (2) that the lack of standard guardrails did not make the bridge defectiveFN10 so as to waive governmental immunity under § 29-20-203; and (3) that even if the missing wheel guards rendered the bridge unsafe, the county did not have actual or constructive notice of the condition so as to waive immunity under § 29-20-203.
    FN10 Although the language at the end of Section I in Kirby, 892 S.W.2d at 406, appears to imply that we found that the lack of standard metal guardrails did not make the bridge defective because the decision to install guardrails is a discretionary function, that was not our intent. To clarify, as a matter of law, lack of standard metal guardrails does not render a bridge or roadway 'defective, unsafe, or dangerous' per se. Rather, the courts should consider all of the physical aspects of a particular bridge, together with its location, the volume of traffic, the type of traffic it accommodates, and the history of accidents occurring there, to decide whether a particular bridge is 'defective, unsafe, or dangerous.' Sweeney v. State, [768 S.W.2d 253, 255 (Tenn. 1989)]. The issue of whether governmental immunity is preserved under [Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-2-205(1)] is a separate matter entirely. In other words, even when the decision whether to install guardrails is a discretionary function that preserves governmental immunity under § 29-20-205(1), it is possible that the lack of guardrails might render the bridge or roadway so defective, unsafe, or dangerous that immunity is waived under § 29-20-203."
    Id .
  • "Whether a road or bridge is 'defective, unsafe, or dangerous' necessarily depends on the standard of care imposed on governments when they are building and maintaining bridges. As this Court noted Fretwell v. Chaffin, [652 S.W.2d 755, 756 (Tenn. 1983)], prior case law does not necessarily bear greatly upon the construction and interpretation of the GTLA. Prior case law does, however, provide a perspective as to the standard of care historically required of governments in building and maintaining roads and bridges." Id. at 882-83.
  • "Traditionally, the standard of care imposed on governments in building and maintaining roads and bridges is one of reasonableness. For instance, Swain v. City of Nashville, [92 S.W.2d 405, 406 (Tenn. 1936)], this Court noted, 'a city or town is not an insurer against accidents upon its streets and sidewalks, but is bound to use only ordinary care to keep them in a reasonably safe condition for persons traveling in the ordinary modes, while exercising reasonable care and caution.' Moreover, '[i]t [is] not its duty, however, to maintain guard rails of sufficient strength to prevent all accidents.' Id. Quoting the New York Court of Appeals, the Court continued:
    All that was required of it was that it should erect such a railing, if any, as would be a sufficient protection for travel generally. The town was not bound to exercise extraordinary care to guard against unusual accidents.

    ... To impose on towns the burden either of constructing substantial barriers at every point of possible danger or of paying damages when unusual accidents occur which such barriers might have prevented would be to advance the present measure of liability beyond the rule of ordinary care into the field of insurance against accidental injury or death. Id. (quoting Roberts v. Town of Eaton, 144 N.E. 667 (N.Y. 1924)]);Lagua v. Hawaii, [649 P.2d 1135 (Haw. 1982)] (applying Hawaii's version of the Governmental Tort Liability Act). In City of Memphis v. McCrady, [124 S.W.2d 248 (Tenn. 1938)], the Court addressed a case in which the plaintiff had tripped over a two and one-half inch obstruction protruding from a city sidewalk. The Court found this was not such a dangerous obstruction as to amount to negligence and pronounced that 'the municipality is liable when it appears that the obstruction constituted a danger from which injury might be reasonably anticipated.' 124 S.W.2d at 249. Forrester v. City of Nashville, 169 S.W.2d 860 (Tenn. 1943)], we noted, 'Probability, not possibility, governs; that it is 'possible' ... does not make it dangerous.'" Id. at 883.
  • "As noted above, the GTLA abolished the distinction between governmental and proprietary functions of local government as related to tort claims. Since its enactment, however, courts have continued to affirm the duty of a governmental entity to maintain the road in a 'proper, reasonably safe fashion.' See, e.g., Baker v. Seal, [694 S.W.2d 948, 950 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984)]." Id.
  • "In 1989, this Court considered a claim against the State in Sweeney v. State, [768 S.W.2d 253 (Tenn. 1989)]. The plaintiff in Sweeney was injured when the car in which he was riding left the road on a curve. The claim was made under Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 9-8-307(a)(1)(I) and (J) of the Claims Commission Act, which are analogous to §§ 29-20-205 and -203, respectively, of the GTLA. The Court found the State was not negligent under subsection (I). Thus, the Court had to consider whether the curve was 'a dangerous condition' under subsection (J). In resolving this issue, we stated:
    The decision of whether a condition of highway actually is a dangerous and hazardous one to an ordinary prudent driver is a factual one, and the court should consider the physical aspects of the roadway, the frequency of accidents at that place in the highway and the testimony of expert witnesses in arriving at this factual determination.
    768 S.W.2d at 255 (quoting Holmes v. Christopher, [435 So.2d 1022 (La. Ct. App. 1983)])." Id. (footnote omitted).
  • "In Sweeney, the road in question was reconstructed after a rock slide in 1978. Between March 7, 1981, and March 3, 1983, there were twenty-three single-car accidents on that same curve. An expert testified that a dangerous condition prevailed at the site. We concluded that the State should have foreseen the risk and that the District Highway Superintendent had adequate notice of the dangerous condition of the curve based on the accident history. The State was, therefore, liable for the plaintiff's injuries." Id. at 883-84.
  • "The Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion Goodermote v. State, [856 S.W.2d 715 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1993)]. In Goodermote, the vehicle in which the plaintiff was riding left the road and traveled between twin bridges and down an embankment, coming to rest in a ditch. The industry standard when the road was built required placing a guardrail or an earthen berm between the twin bridges because studies showed that vehicles would leave the road and travel through this area. There was no guardrail or berm at this accident site. There was testimony that if a guardrail or berm had been in place, the impact would have been less, and the plaintiff may not have incurred his injuries. More significant, however, was the fact that in the previous three years six accidents had occurred within six-tenths of a mile of plaintiff's accident site. Two accidents had occurred in exactly the same manner, in exactly the same place, as the plaintiff's accident. The Court of Appeals found that the state had been put on notice by the prior accidents, that this particular location was dangerous, and that it should have installed safety devices. Therefore, it held the state liable for the plaintiff's subsequent injuries. 856 S.W.2d at 723." Id. at 884.
  • "The present case is distinguishable from Goodermote. Here, there are no prior recorded instances of anyone driving over the edge of Coward Mill Bridge. The fact that repeated accidents occur at a particular location may lead to the ultimate conclusion that the conditions at that location are inherently dangerous. See, e.g., Goodermote, 856 S.W.2d at 715; Sweeney, 768 S.W.2d at 253; Seaton v. County of Scott, [404 N.W.2d 396 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987)]. However, the fact of, or absence of, prior accidents is only one element in the equation." Id.
  • "In this instance, we do not have a modern structure built during a time when the industry standards required the installation of guardrails. Rather, Coward Mill Bridge was built at the turn of the century before the concept of metal guardrails had evolved.FN12 At the time of Helton's accident, the road leading to the bridge was adequately marked 'one-lane bridge ahead.' In addition, as a vehicle rounded the first curve to the right, the paddle boards would have been clearly visible to the driver. Because of the sharpness of the two curves on the approach to the bridge, a driver who had successfully negotiated the second curve would be traveling at a slow rate of speed. The edges of the bridge were clearly marked with reflective fog lines and the stone curbs. Under these conditions, we cannot find that Coward Mill Bridge was 'defective, unsafe, or dangerous' to the ordinary, prudent driver. Accordingly, Knox County's immunity is not waived under § 29-20-203(a).
    FN12 When the bridge was built in 1895, the law provided: 'It shall be the duty of the various county courts of this State, in letting out all contracts for the erection of bridges, to require that they shall be made secure with good and substantial railing of the height of three feet.' Stat. of Tenn. § 1273(i) (1871). That code section, however, was located in Chapter 7 of the Code, titled 'Of Local Improvements.' By its own terms, this chapter applied only to private and local improvements. The entire chapter was devoted to the requirements by which private persons applying to the courts for permission to construct toll-bridges, ferry landings and the like must abide. It is not clear from the record whether this bridge, now part of a public thoroughfare, was originally constructed by private persons or by the government. This statute is now codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 54-11-205. The language remains the same, except that the words 'county legislative bodies' have been substituted for the words 'various county courts.' The section has been moved to a chapter which deals with public fords, ferries, and bridges. Regardless of its present form, we do not deem it a directive for governments to go back and install three-foot guardrails on bridges that did not already contain such a feature."
    Id .

Other Sources of Note: The Court also discussed the discretionary function exception and held that "the decision not to install guardrails despite the recommendations of state inspectors falls within the discretionary function exception of the GTLA." Id. at 887. The discretionary function exception is addressed elsewhere in this Chapter. For other cases involving liability for roads and bridges see Zamek v. O'Donnell, 2007 WL 98481 (Tenn. App. Jan. 16, 2007) (road markings and signage case); Mosely v. McCanless, 207 S.W.3d 247 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006) (intersection and traffic control device case); (Burgess v. Harley, 934 S.W.2d 58 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1996) (intersection case); Reed v. Carter County, 2003 WL 22794485 (Tenn. App. Nov. 25, 2003) (bridge case).

Recent Cases: 

Watts v. Morris , No. W2008-00896-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 1228273 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 6, 2009) (affirming judgment of trial court on basis that plaintiff failed to prove that the street was a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition for which the City's immunity was waived); Champlin v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, No. M2007-02158-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 1065937 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 20, 2009) (affirming summary judgment finding sidewalk inventory prepared for defendant city to identify Americans with Disabilities Act violations did not detail that any sidewalk constituted a "defective, unsafe or dangerous condition" to hold defendant city liable under the Governmental Tort Liability Act); Condra v. Bradley County, No. E2007-01290-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 196020 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2009) (reversing summary judgment finding defendant county did not affirmatively show a lack of actual or constructive notice of the allegedly dangerous condition at intersection, and did not submit affidavit or other evidence to show that its maintenance of the intersection was a discretionary function); Ward v. City of Lebanon, et al., No. M2006-02520-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 1850864 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 25, 2008) (holding City was not immune from suit under Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act because dangerous condition resulting in injury was reasonably foreseeable).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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