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Wuthrich v. King County – When Vegetation Blocks a Driver’s View

The Federal Highway Administration encourages roadway agencies to adopt roadside vegetation management programs that identify the best maintenance practices for each location. An integrated approach includes:

  • Mowing
  • Cutting (mechanical and hand)
  • Use of herbicides
  • Grazing of livestock
  • Cultivating desirable vegetation
  • Re-vegetation

Essentially, drivers have to be able to see and navigate the road clearly. If overgrowth of vegetation blocks a driver’s view of roadway signs or oncoming traffic, the municipality in charge of maintenance could find itself facing a car accident lawsuit.

That’s the situation in Wuthrich v. King County, a lawsuit recently revived by the Washington Supreme Court. 

According to court records, plaintiff was riding his motorcycle on Friday evening before dusk when he approached an intersection. At the same time, a driver was approaching that same intersection from the cross street. The driver had a stop sign. The motorcyclist did not. And driver did stop. However, there was a thick overgrowth of  large blackberry bushes that blocked her line of site. She didn’t see the motorcyclist coming. In fact, the motorcyclist didn’t see the car either.

The driver pulled into the roadway – directly into the path of the motorcyclist – and neither saw the other until the point of impact.

Plaintiff motorcyclist was seriously injured.

Nearly three years after the crash, plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the driver, but also against the county. He alleged the municipality was liable for his injuries because the overgrowth of vegetation obstructed the car driver’s view of traffic at the intersection. He argued the county had a duty to make sure the roadway was safe for travelers. Further, he argued the county had an independent duty as a land owner to use and keep its premises in a condition so adjacent public ways aren’t rendered unsafe for ordinary travel. The county disputed that it owned the land on which the blackberry bushes were located.

At defendant county’s request, trial court granted summary judgment to the government entity, finding the county’s duty was limited to complying with applicable law and eliminating inherently hazardous conditions.

In a split decision, the appellate court affirmed. The state supreme court reversed and remanded.

The court noted that the standard of duty cited by defendant and the trial court was indeed supported by prior case law. However, those cases were decided before state legislators waived sovereign immunity for government agencies. Further, while there were a number of cases cited in which courts had held a local government has “no duty at all to address dangerous sight obstructions caused by roadside vegetation,” the state supreme court decided to explicitly hold that those cases are “no longer good law.”

That’s a substantial win for drivers and traffic safety advocates in the state of Washington.

The court still considered whether there was enough evidence to support the notion that:

  • The road was not reasonably safe for travel;
  • The county failed in its duty by not making reasonable efforts to correct hazardous conditions.

It determined plaintiff had presented sufficient proof of these two points to survive summary judgment. Now, the case has been remanded to the lower court for trial.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Wuthrich v. King County, Jan. 28, 2016, Washington Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

McFadden v. Dept. of Transp. – Negligent Highway Maintenance With Pavement Drop-Off, Jan. 27, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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