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Murphy v. Savannah

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

April 11, 2018

ROBERT G. MURPHY AND PAMELA MURPHY Plaintiffs-Appellants
v.
SHAUNTAL SAVANNAH; STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, A.K.A. STATE FARM; STATE OF LOUISIANA, THROUGH THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND DEVELOPMENT Defendants-Appellees

          Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana Trial Court No. 570, 963 Honorable Michael A. Pitman, Judge

          MORRIS, DEWETT & SAVOIE, LLC Counsel for Appellants, B. Trey Morris Robert G. Murphy and G. Adam Savoie Pamela Murphy Meagan E. Shadinger

          KENNETH R. ANTEE, JR. LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE Counsel for Appellee, Gregory S. Barkley State of Louisiana Assistant Attorney General through the DOTD

          Before WILLIAMS, GARRETT, and STEPHENS, JJ.

          WILLIAMS, J.

         In this lawsuit arising out of a collision between an automobile and a motorcycle, Robert Murphy and Pamela Murphy appeal a summary judgment dismissing their claims against the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Concluding that the affidavit from the Murphys' expert presented factual issues precluding summary judgment, we reverse and remand.

         FACTS

         On December 5, 2012, Robert Murphy was driving his motorcycle south on a two-lane stretch of Louisiana Highway 538 in Shreveport known as Old Mooringsport Road. Highway 538 is part of the Louisiana state highway system. At the same time, Shauntal Savannah was driving her Nissan Maxima in the opposite direction on that same stretch of Old Mooringsport Road. Their vehicles collided at the intersection of Old Mooringsport Road and Ravendale Drive ("the intersection") when Savannah turned left in front of Murphy. The motorcycle struck the passenger-side door of the Maxima in Murphy's lane of traffic. The intersection has been described as a "Y-type" intersection.

         In August 2013, the plaintiffs, Robert Murphy and his wife, Pamela Murphy, filed a petition for damages against the defendants, Shauntal Savannah ("Savannah"), her liability insurer, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm") and the State of Louisiana through the Department of Transportation and Development ("DOTD"). The Murphys alleged that DOTD was at fault because of its failure to warn motorists of a dangerous condition and failure to remedy the defective design of the intersection that created an unreasonably dangerous condition of which DOTD had actual and constructive notice.

         DOTD filed an answer and amended answer denying knowledge of any alleged unreasonably dangerous condition and asserting the fault of third parties, including Savannah and Robert Murphy. In December 2013, following a settlement, the Murphys dismissed their claims against Savannah and State Farm.

         In February 2017, DOTD filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that the accident was caused solely by the grossly negligent actions of Savannah and that the Murphys could not present any evidence of DOTD's negligence or liability. Attached to the motion for summary judgment were an affidavit from a DOTD civil engineer, an affidavit from an expert engineer, and excerpts from the deposition transcripts of the two drivers.

         Kevin Blunck is a civil engineer employed as a District Area Engineer by DOTD in District 4, which includes all of Caddo Parish. He was charged with coordinating all maintenance operations for state highways located in Caddo and Red River Parishes, making him personally familiar with any issues, transactions, complaints, construction, and maintenance projects having to do with Highway 538 in Caddo Parish. Blunck testified that at the time of the accident, there was no record of any DOTD repairs, maintenance projects, or construction projects that were being performed on the section of Highway 538 located at or near the intersection. Blunck stated that there were no records of any complaints having been made to DOTD, within 180 days prior to the accident, regarding any alleged deficiencies or defects with respect to the section of Highway 538 located at or near the intersection.

          Dr. Joseph Blaschke is a civil engineer who was retained by DOTD to investigate and evaluate the circumstances surrounding the accident. He was asked to address whether the traffic control devices on Highway 538 at or near the intersection were in compliance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices ("MUTCD") at the time of the crash and whether there were sufficient sight distances for motorists on Highway 538 to safely observe both the traffic control devices and any oncoming traffic. As part of his investigation, Dr. Blaschke inspected the crash site twice and conducted lines-of-sight and time/distance evaluations (relative to available sight distances) for motorists operating vehicles in the vicinity of the intersection. He also reviewed photographs of the crash scene, the accident report and the deposition transcripts of Robert Murphy and Savannah.

         Dr. Blaschke testified that his investigation revealed that the traffic control devices in place at the time of the accident on Highway 538 at the intersection were in compliance with MUTCD. He stated that his evaluation of the roadways did not reveal any roadway abnormalities or design deficiencies on Highway 538 at the intersection at the time of the crash that would be considered in violation of or inconsistent with any roadway design standards or guidelines applicable at the time of original construction. He added that there were sufficient lines of sight (or sight distances) available for both drivers to observe the various traffic control devices that were in place along their respective travel routes and there were sufficient stopping sight distances available for both drivers to observe the approaching intersection, see any vehicle present at or approaching the intersection, and negotiate the intersection safely.

          Dr. Blaschke concluded that the area of Highway 538 at the intersection was not unreasonably dangerous. He further concluded that all of the physical evidence and the testimony of the two drivers revealed that the sole cause of the accident was Savannah's failure to yield the right of way to Robert Murphy. According to Blaschke, he reached these conclusions because both drivers had testified that there were no sight distance restrictions relative to the geometry of the roadway that prohibited either driver from seeing the other's vehicle prior to the crash and Savannah had testified that she was at fault in causing the accident.

         In her deposition, Savannah testified that she lived near the accident site and that she made a left turn onto Ravendale Drive from Old Mooringsport Road every day that she drove her children to school. She described how a truck was in front of her on Old Mooringsport Road before she turned left to go onto Ravendale Drive. She claimed that her vehicle came to a complete stop and that she looked for oncoming traffic prior to starting her left turn. She also claimed that her left turn signal was on. Savannah asserted that she was at fault for the accident because she never saw Murphy's motorcycle before making her turn. She denied that a curve on Old Mooringsport Road prevented her from seeing the oncoming motorcycle.

         Murphy testified in his deposition he was familiar with the section of Old Mooringsport Road near the intersection as that was his regular route to work each morning. He recalled that there was not much traffic that morning. Murphy denied that there were any sight obstructions preventing him from seeing oncoming traffic as he drove on a curve toward the intersection. His deposition testimony contradicted Savannah's testimony that she came to a complete stop and had activated her left turn signal before commencing her turn. He maintained that Savannah was still approaching the intersection when he first saw her vehicle.

         Plaintiffs argued in opposition to the motion for summary judgment that the intersection was unreasonably dangerous because it was constructed at a 20-degree acute angle which made it susceptible to left-turning crashes. Attached to plaintiffs' opposition was an affidavit from V.O. Tekell, Jr., a traffic operations engineer licensed by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Tekell had served as the Transportation Engineer for Lafayette Parish Consolidated Government. He noted that Ravendale Drive formed a "Y" intersection with Old Mooringsport Road, and that the intersection was constructed at an extremely acute angle of less than 20 degrees. He quoted the 1940 AASHO (American Association of State Highway Officials) publication, which stated that for such intersections, "at any but slow speeds these nearly head-on crossings at a small angle are dangerous." He added that the publication advised that regardless of the type of intersection, it is desirable that intersecting roads meet at right angles for both safety and economy. He also testified that AASHO has continually reaffirmed that intersecting roads should meet at or nearly at right angles for economy and safety, and that acute-angle intersections increase the exposure time of vehicles crossing the main traffic flow.

         Tekell noted that for over 70 years, AASHO[1] has cautioned state officials that acute angle intersections, especially ones as extreme as the intersection at issue, are particularly susceptible to left-turning crashes similar to the one that occurred between Murphy and Savannah. Tekell further noted that although it was not known when the intersection was constructed, there had been over 50 years of notice that the design is flawed and accident-prone. Finally, Tekell concluded that the layout of the intersection was a contributing factor in causing the crash that occurred.

         DOTD filed a motion to strike the exhibits attached to Tekell's affidavit except for his curriculum vitae. DOTD contended that the documents were not properly authenticated and did not fall within the category of documents authorized under the Code of Civil Procedure to be filed in support of or in opposition to the motion for summary judgment. The Murphys countered that Tekell would be able to rely upon hearsay or otherwise inadmissible documents at trial, and that the documents became properly authenticated ...


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