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Murphy v. Savannah

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 8, 2019

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

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, SECOND CIRCUIT, PARISH OF CADDO

          PER CURIAM

         In this case, we are called upon to decide whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of defendant on the ground that plaintiff failed to establish any genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the intersection at issue was unreasonably dangerous. Finding no error in the ruling of the district court, we now reverse the judgment of the court of appeal and reinstate the summary judgment.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Robert Murphy was operating his motorcycle on a two-lane stretch of Louisiana Highway 538, known as Old Mooringsport Road, which runs in a north-south direction. Mr. Murphy was proceeding on southerly direction.

         At the same time, Shauntal Savannah was driving her Nissan Maxima in the northbound lane of Old Mooringsport Road. As Ms. Savannah approached the intersection of Old Mooringsport Road and Ravensdale Drive, she pulled into the southbound lane with the intent to turn onto Ravensdale Drive. As she did so, she entered Mr. Murphy's lane of travel. Mr. Murphy's motorcycle struck the passenger-side door of Ms. Savannah's vehicle, causing injury to Mr. Murphy.

         Thereafter, Mr. Murphy and his wife (hereinafter referred to as "plaintiffs") filed the instant suit against the State of Louisiana through the Department of Development and Transportation ("DOTD").[1] Plaintiffs alleged DOTD failed to warn of a dangerous condition and failed to remedy the defective design of the intersection.

         After discovery, DOTD filed a motion for summary judgment. In support, DOTD relied on the affidavit of Kevin Blunck, a civil engineer employed by DOTD, who averred that at the time of the accident, DOTD did not have a record of any repairs, maintenance, or construction projects that were being performed in the section of Highway 538 located at or near the intersection. Mr. Blunck stated DOTD had no record of any complaints within 180 days prior to the accident with respect to the intersection.

         Additionally, DOTD attached Ms. Savannah's deposition testimony. Ms. Savannah, who was familiar with the intersection, admitted she was at fault for the accident because she did not see Mr. Murphy's motorcycle before making her turn. Ms. Savannah also denied that a curve on Old Mooringsport Road prevented her from seeing the oncoming motorcycle.

         DOTD further attached an excerpt from Mr. Murphy's deposition. When asked if there were any type of sight obstructions that would have kept a driver from seeing approaching vehicles at or near the intersection, Mr. Murphy responded, "No sir. It was wide open."

         DOTD also relied on an affidavit from Dr. Joseph Blaschke, a civil engineer licensed in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.[2] Dr. Blaschke indicated he was asked to address whether the traffic devices that were present at the time of the crash on La. Hwy. 538 at or near its intersection with Ravendale Drive were in compliance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and also whether there were sufficient sight distances available for motorists traveling along this route to be able to observe safely both the traffic control devices that were present and any on-coming traffic.

         To prepare his affidavit and render an opinion, Dr. Blaschke advised he "personally viewed and inspected the crash site on two separate occasions and the surrounding areas of both La. Hwy. 538 (a/k/a Old Mooringsport Road) and Ravendale Drive in Shreveport, Caddo Parish, Louisiana." Dr. Blaschke conducted lines-of-sight and time/distance evaluations (relative to available sight distances) for motorists operating vehicles in the vicinity of the intersection at issue and reviewed multiple pleadings, depositions, reports, and demonstrative evidence in connection with his investigation. Based on this review, he stated:

My review of the records mentioned and my evaluation of both roadways revealed that at the time of the crash, there were no roadway abnormalities or design deficiencies on Louisiana Highway 538, at or near its intersection with Ravendale Drive, that would be considered in violation of or inconsistent with any roadway design standards or guidelines at the time of original construction. 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. There also was 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.

         Finally, Dr. Blaschke concluded the area of roadway at issue that was being traveled upon by plaintiff was not unreasonably dangerous. He explained that all the physical evidence as well as the testimony of the two drivers revealed the sole cause of the crash was Ms. Savannah's failure to yield the right-of-way to the on-coming motorcycle driven by Robert Murphy. Both drivers testified there were no sight distance restrictions relative to the geometry of the roadway that prohibited either driver from seeing the other respective vehicle prior to the crash. Additionally, he noted Ms. Savannah clearly testified that she was "at fault" and her actions were the cause of the crash.

         In opposition to DOTD's motion, plaintiffs relied on the affidavit of V.O. Tekell, Jr., a traffic operations engineer. Mr. Tekell's affidavit indicated he received his Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1980. His post-graduate training includes traffic institute courses and federal highway administration courses.

         To prepare his affidavit and render an opinion, Mr. Tekell reviewed multiple pleadings, depositions, accident reports, excerpts from the American Association of State Highway Officials ("AASHO") publications, and certain DOTD daily work reports.[3]

         Mr. Tekell stated that in a 1940 publication, AASHO opined that regardless of the type of intersection, for safety and economy, intersecting roads should meet at or nearly at right angles. Mr. Tekell notes the AASHO made repeat affirmations in 1965, 1973, 1984, 1990, 2001, 2004, and 2011. According to Mr. Tekell, based on his review of a 2012 aerial photo of the intersection at issue and the AASHO guidelines, it was his opinion the "Y" intersection at issue was constructed at an acute angle of less than twenty degrees. Mr. Tekell further states that "while it is not yet known when this particular intersection was constructed there has been over ½ century of notice that the design is flawed and accident prone." Finally, Mr. Tekell concluded the layout of the intersection was a "contributing factor" to the crash at issue.

         After a hearing, the district court granted DOTD's motion for summary judgment, finding there were no genuine issues of material fact in dispute. In oral ...


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