Who is liable in a traffic-related wrongful-death lawsuit?
August 5, 2013 12:24 PM   Subscribe

A car exits the parking ramp, assumes it is a normal street, turns right, and gets completely creamed and T-boned at the very next intersection, and everybody in both vehicles dies. Can the parking ramp or the city be sued for not providing adequate signage??

There is a ten-story parking ramp that exits onto a one-way street.

There are no signs and no indicators in the hotel parking ramp that the exit is a LEFT TURN ONLY / NO RIGHT TURN exit.

There are no signs on the street which say ONE WAY which would indicate that it is a one-way street.

The only indication that it is a one way street is the white colored stripe in the road, which is covered in the winter and looks yellow by the Sodium lamps at night.

A car exits the parking ramp, assumes it is a normal street, turns right, and gets completely creamed and T-boned at the very next intersection, and everybody in both vehicles dies.

Is the owner of the parking ramp liable? for not providing adequate signage?

Is the City liable, for not providing ONE WAY signage?

Or is it really all the fault of the poor driver?
posted by shipbreaker to Law & Government (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is going to depend on more details than you've given here. What you want is a local lawyer, not the hive-mind.
posted by stopgap at 12:31 PM on August 5, 2013

IANAL but I spend so much time with them I sometimes pretend. I would guess this is a question that would have to be settled by either negotiation between the representatives of the parties involved, a judge or a jury. I seriously doubt that it can be allocated in an exact manner. Fundamentally it is the responsibility of the driver who made an incorrect turn. It is their duty to operate in a safe manner.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:32 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can the parking ramp or the city be sued for not providing adequate signage??

Sure. Anyone can sue anyone for anything. Can the heirs of anyone involved win that lawsuit? Very possibly, depending on the laws and regulations applicable to the location.

But knowing nothing else about the physical location: to me, "T-boned" means that the car got hit in the side, and if everyone died, then the other vehicle would seem to have been going too fast to have stopped if they'd seen someone coming from the correct direction anyway.
posted by Etrigan at 12:33 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

"It depends" is your accurate but admittedly unexciting answer. People have both won and lost these kinds of suits, but it all depends.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:15 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

But knowing nothing else about the physical location: to me, "T-boned" means that the car got hit in the side, and if everyone died, then the other vehicle would seem to have been going too fast to have stopped if they'd seen someone coming from the correct direction anyway.

I'm imagining that the one-way street probably had a stop sign or red signal for that intersection that would've been visible to somebody going in the correct direction, and that the driver that t-boned the car exiting the garage was just proceeding normally through a green light. I'm curious what cues there might've been for the person going the wrong way as they entered the intersection. If no stop sign or other signal was in evidence I would think they'd notice something was off; did they assume there was a stop sign for the other (presumably more major) street but not for them?

It does sound like a heinously inadequate amount of signage all around, but as others have said it would take somebody well-versed in local regulations to determine who should bear responsibility and whether a suit is likely to be successful.
posted by contraption at 1:27 PM on August 5, 2013

There may not be enough signage to dissuade a driver from assuming it's a two-way street, but there may be enough signage for the city/etc. to avoid liability. The putative case would exist in the gap between these two situations.
posted by rhizome at 1:38 PM on August 5, 2013

If no stop sign or other signal was in evidence I would think they'd notice something was off; did they assume there was a stop sign for the other (presumably more major) street but not for them?

One way I was told to determine if I was going the wrong way was to look for ANY signage. If it is pointing the wrong way you are going the wrong way. This would include no parking signs, informational signs, etc. The only problem with that is if you approach an intersection going the wrong way, and there is no One Way sign, or any other signage you may see the back side of a stop sign, on the opposite side of the road, you may even see a car waiting at that stop sign, and this is 100% normal. You may then proceed to enter the intersection because hey, no stop sign.
posted by Gungho at 1:54 PM on August 5, 2013

IANAL, but the issue of getting hit at an intersection is not really related to the one way street. The driver that t-boned the car that had exited the garage and was crossing the intersection (admittedly the wrong way) is responsible for avoiding hitting anything in front of him.
The fact the car he hit was going the wrong way falls into the same category as a kid chasing a ball out into the street. You need to be able to stop regardless.
Mitigating factors might be how *fast* the car emerged the wrong way, so as to make avoidance collision almost or completely impossible.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 2:10 PM on August 5, 2013

blue_wardrobe--I am not sure you are correct. As long as a driver is operating in a reasonable manner and with in the law it is not their responsibility to avoid hitting anything that might be in their path. Granted--one is always responsible for maintaining a safe distance to avoid hitting a car in front of them (assured clear distance) but I do not believe this includes cars/pedestrians/objects entering a through road illegally.
posted by rmhsinc at 2:48 PM on August 5, 2013

There really IS a six-story parking ramp. There really IS an exit onto a One-Way street. There is NO sign in the hotel parking ramp indicating "LEFT TURN ONLY" , or "NO RIGHT TURN".

There is a city street, and there is no ONE-WAY sign visible at all when you exit the hotel parking ramp.

The only way to tell that it is a one-way street is by the color of the stripe in the middle of the road.

Someone is going to get creamed, I guarantee it. The hotel is the HOLIDAY INN in Downtown Duluth, MN.

Nobody has been killed in my hypothetical scenario listed above, but I am very concerned: Is the HOTEL required to put up a sign? is the CITY required to put up a sign? Both? Neither? Do we have to wait for an actual accident to occur before somebody fixes the situation?

Do I contact the City Planning Office for the City of Duluth? Do I contact the General Manager of the Duluth HOLIDAY INN? Corporate Headquarters for the HOLIDAY INN? It's a death trap waiting to happen.

Which party is _responsible_ for putting up a sign, and thus _negligent_ for not having one up already?

Has either the city or the hotel committed an actionable offense, can somebody sue and win if there is an accident?
posted by shipbreaker at 3:36 PM on August 5, 2013

I doubt anyone can sue.

When you build a hotel, the local jurisdiction is VERY involved in traffic planning around the hotel. Building codes and building inspectors dictate where you put the exit, if you need a stop sign, if you need a street light. Builders often do exactly and only what is required. Doing more costs money, and doing money means they are accepting some responsibility for the decision process.

It is very difficult to sue the government for something like a missing road sign. Or a poorly trained building inspector who missed the need for a sign somewhere. The city has limited resources - and they have to juggle things the best they can. The person hurt by the building inspector wants better trained inspectors - and the person who could have been saved from the building fire wants extra fireman. A suit like that against the city gets into the issue of city budget and resource allocation.

I doubt you could sue anyone.

But, you could send a letter to the local building department, and the local city manager, and recommend that they take a look at an existing problem.
posted by Flood at 4:04 PM on August 5, 2013

It's impossible to answer the question because the question of liability is entirely fact specific, and it sounds like this is entirely hypothetical and an accident hasn't occurred. Looking this up on Google street view, there was no signage in September 2011 either. The lack of a catastrophe in at least two years of nonexistent signage suggests this may not be the danger you think it is. I note also that there appears to be parking on both sides of the (wide) street, which is a clear cue to drivers that the street is one way, as long as there are some cars parked on the left side.
posted by payoto at 4:15 PM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I live in a place with many one way streets, and very few private parking lots or driveways have signs. I think the driver making the illegal right turn onto a one-way street is most likely liable for any accidents. Cities don't generally put one-way signs opposite every driveway exiting onto one-way streets.

I agree that if it is hard to tell whether the stripe is white or yellow at night people can easily be confused. However, if I'm looking at the correct Holiday Inn, the fact that cars exit the garage from the left lane should be a very good clue to any driver that they should not be turning right onto the street.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:17 PM on August 5, 2013

Just contact the City Planning office. Though if they're anything like UK councils be prepared for them to tell you that as no one has been injured or killed they won't do anything about it. My road is very bad for accidents. THere's one corner that people take too fast. Someone drove into a car, shunted it onto the pavement and only just missed destroying my wall, one person managed to flip there car and damage a car on the other side of the road. Then there was this accident. Yes that's a reinforced concrete bollard that got snapped in half and deposited in the back of the car that was hit. The car was much closer the were the bollard was before it was hit. Even after the energy expended in that impact there was still enough force to shunt that car into the one in front writing that one off too. I contacted the council and was told seeing as no one died they weren't going to do anything about it. The scary thing is that the bollard is where people cross the road, so one day someone will die and it will have been avoidable.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 4:24 PM on August 5, 2013

Probably not exactly what you're looking for, but I (as an occasional driver, who had borrowed her brother's car at one point) got a parking ticket outside my building because apparently, there is no overnight parking in my neighbourhood. The nearest sign indicating this was a couple of kilometers away, despite the fact I'm at the edge of my municipality.

I paid the ticket, but at the same time, I wrote to the municipality explaining that there was no signage nearby. Within six months, there were signs at either end of my street.

Granted, I'm in Canada and it's parking-related as opposed to moving-traffic-related, but if you haven't tried contacting the municipality, that's where I would start.

Further, I would say that the city ought to put signage on the curb across from the exit, while the hotel ought to put signage at the exit. I agree that this is an unsafe situation, but I would start with the city and, in your question, ask them who you should contact about this if they are not the proper department.

Good luck. :)
posted by juliebug at 4:32 PM on August 5, 2013

Do I contact the City Planning Office for the City of Duluth? Do I contact the General Manager of the Duluth HOLIDAY INN? Corporate Headquarters for the HOLIDAY INN? It's a death trap waiting to happen.

If nothing's happened yet, so this isn't scary urgent, you can simply contact all of the above. Send an email that addresses all three groups, and copy them all on it. Also, include the city councillor responsible for the ward/district/whatever they call them in Duluth that contains the Holiday Inn.

Don't feel compelled to address this to them as a liability issue -- they'll figure that out on their own if it is one, and yelling about liability will make you seem more like a crackpot than someone to be taken seriously. Just raise it as an issue of safety and driver confusion and ask what steps need to be taken to ensure that a sign is added in that spot.

The Holiday Inn can likely add a sign or painted arrows on their own property without much oversight, but a sign adjustment from the city may require committee approval or other steps, and you may need to help put pressure on to make that happen.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:57 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would like for there to be a sign for people exiting the hotel which says LEFT TURN ONLY or NO RIGHT TURN, and I would also like for there to be a city sign on the sidewalk across the street that says ONE WAY. I don't care who thinks I'm a crackpot, because honestly, I am. I just really really think there should be some signs there.

I am the person who turned right, then almost got creamed.
posted by shipbreaker at 5:00 PM on August 5, 2013

[shipbreaker, please don't threadsit. Next time please ask the actual question.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:10 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your original question wasn't clear because it described a totally hypothetical situation for no discernible reason other than a thought experiment. If what you are really curious about is who to contact to get signage, then I don't see any reason not to write letters to the hotel, to the city planning office, and to the city of Duluth explaining what happened to you, how easily it could happen to others, and what you think they could to do address it.
posted by juliplease at 5:12 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

The problem with having people think of you as a crackpot is not the blow to your pride, it's that crackpots aren't take seriously. If you want to get action, you want to come across as reasonable and dedicated not crazy.

There are tons of people in my building who rant and rage about traffic in our immediate area, by all it took was one really calm and persistent resident who worked with our local councillor for a few months to get a whole bunch of rule changes and new signs. Be that dude, not the ranters.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:52 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sure. Anyone can sue anyone for anything.

Just wanted to add for laypeople that while this is something often said, it more narrowly means that "anyone can file a complaint for anything." There are mechanisms to prevent it from going any further than that when the complaint is defective and/or the suit is improper for one reason or another. Like a lack of standing to sue, or suing the wrong defendant, or complaining of something that isn't actionable as presented.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:15 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might investigate whether the responsible entity in your municipality (probably whatever office handles traffic engineering) has set up some kind of point of contact for reporting unsafe road conditions, bad signage, etc.

Maybe the Duluth MIC is a decent starting place, even if just for a referral? They seem to rope in people from various agencies etc. and encourage public contact.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:21 PM on August 5, 2013

Even if the garage exit is without any signage whatsoever (not merely 'you didn't NOTICE the signs'), I've always considered it understood that anyone making a turn from something like a garage or parking lot onto a street is expected to come to a complete stop, look around, and THEN make their turn: the person making the merge is responsible for making a SAFE merge.

Is this garage exit T-shaped? As in, you drove up to an exit that is straight perpendicular to the road; or is the exit more Y-shaped, as in you driving up to the garage exit at a slant to the roadway? That would seem to make a difference to me, as it would be just one indication of the 'expected' direction a driver is supposed to head.

Either way, if a car that was already out of the garage and had progressed to the next intersection, my guess (and since IANAL, that's all it is, a guess!) is that the hotel and their garage would not be responsible. BUT: since there *has never BEEN* such a fatal accident there, my additional guess is that
*the roadway and exit are shaped to indicate a merging driver is to go left only, and/or
*there is indeed garage and/or street signage you just didn't notice.
posted by easily confused at 6:23 PM on August 5, 2013

IANAL, but I play armchair urban planner.

There are two separate questions here (at least).

For the city, the answer is whether they followed a) their own written ordinances or policies, b) state laws and regulations, or c) the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The latter does not appear to address the city's responsibility outside of intersections with public rights-of-way such as streets, exit ramps, and alleyways, so in a general sense we may surmise that the city won't be found legally liable for that (more directly, that no city employee would be found to be grossly negligent, thereby piercing any municipal protections from liability). I won't say this is impossible, but I think it is less likely to be a productive claim.

For the hotel (or operator of the parking garage, or other responsible private entity), there's another chain of responsibility to follow. The city (or state) may have a design guideline for parking garages (I googled, some larger cities do), or it may just rely on general building codes. I did find that Chicago's manual, while addressing things such as lane widths in detail, makes virtually no mention of signage regarding one-way streets. So I would not expect that Duluth's authorities have superior guidance.

I would deal with this as a typical customer complaint process: beginning with an extremely polite "as a customer of your facility, I was unfortunately...." letter of complaint to the hotel manager, perhaps buttressed with any photography you care to use to illustrate the problem. As a legal complaint, I'd imagine you won't get anywhere without having suffered an injury and thereby gaining a tort. Address it as a future concern rather than a failure of responsibility or diligence.
posted by dhartung at 6:29 PM on August 5, 2013

In Google Street View it does look like there are no signs or other clues that you're entering a one-way street there. Very dangerous. Even if there was a sign inside on the exit ramp (and I believe you when you say there isn't), such a sign might be missed by a driver fumbling with a parking garage ticket. In the absence of traffic demonstrating that it's a one way street, seems like it would be easy to go the wrong way and perhaps go several blocks before recognizing the error.

Half a block west there's a monthly parking garage also exiting onto 1st street, and also without signage. Monthly parkers would probably know the streets, but hotel guests aren't likely to.

My guess is that the uninformed driver going the wrong way would be most likely to be found liable, in the absence of any city ordinance or other official guidance creating a duty for others to provide signage.
posted by Snerd at 6:34 PM on August 5, 2013

In the Google Street View it looks like it's possible there's a (very) faded yellow arrow painted on the pavement at the exit. I think that would be more than enough notice to drivers if it were repainted.
posted by stopgap at 7:21 PM on August 5, 2013

can somebody sue and win if there is an accident?

Completely irrelevant to your goal of having signs put up.

Contact all the parties you mentioned about signs.

It will behoove you to hide that you are a crackpot. Crackpots are discriminated against in these matters, however if you do not act like you are a crackpot no one will have any way of knowing.

Present reasonable arguments for why this should be done, then go home and laugh at how they had no idea you were a crackpot.

Or you can go full crackpot and camp out opposite the exit with a one-way sign.
posted by yohko at 8:26 PM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

In Google Street View it does look like there are no signs or other clues that you're entering a one-way street there.

I agree there are no immediate signs, but there are clues:

cars parked on both sides of the street, facing the same way
white lane marker (yes, can be hard to see)
no signal for traffic coming the wrong way into the intersection at the corner
and as I pointed out before, one exits and enters the garage on the left side. This is a very common situation for parking lots and garages on one-way streets.

Furthermore, it is always the responsibility of a vehicle entering the roadway to do so in a safe manner, and yield he right-of-way to all roadway traffic. If one were in court for a violation, it could be argued that at night, at a time when there were no parked cars, that it would be difficult to know that it was a one-way street. However, it can also be argued that the left-side exit should be a strong indicator, especially if that one-way street is also the only entrance into the parking garage (and was presumably driven upon by the person in the vehicle). If the vehicle got as far as the next signaled intersection in which the signals all face the opposite way then they bear greater responsibility for any accident that occurs at the intersection, seeing as they are driving illegally down a one-way street.

I think it would behoove the hotel to repaint the arrows out of the garage, and this should be suggested. There's nothing wrong with asking the city for more indicators. However, they are not non-existent, even if they are not always obvious.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:15 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I contacted the City Engineers for the City of Duluth, they will put up a ONE WAY sign or maybe a NO RIGHT TURN signal sign.

Problem solved!

Thank you for all the good advice.
posted by shipbreaker at 2:43 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

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