WA Case Update: Municipalities Owe Legal Duties to All Parties, Including Intoxicated Drivers

From the desk of Kyle Riley: Legal causation is an element of a negligence claim, which is grounded in policy determinations as to how far the consequences of a defendant’s acts should extend. Legal causation allows a court to limit a defendant’s liability based on public policy. A recent Washington Supreme Court case holds that even intoxicated parties are owed a legal duty, by municipalities and counties, to have a reasonably safe roadway; and an unsafe road design can be the legal cause of a motor vehicle accident involving an intoxicated driver.

Claims Pointer: Insurers and their attorneys should be aware that even when a driver is negligent in operation of his or her vehicle, a passenger that is injured may recover against the municipality or county for negligent maintenance and design of the road.

Lowman v. Wilbur, 178 Wash.2d 165, 309 P.3d 387 (2013).

Nathan Lowman (“Lowman”) and Jennifer Wilbur (“Wilbur”) left a bar together. With Lowman as a passenger, Wilbur drove along a two lane road. As Wilbur drove down a steep, winding hill, she lost control of her vehicle, which left the road and hit a utility pole. The utility pole was 4.47 feet from the edge of the roadway. Lowman sustained severe injuries, including the disfigurement of his right arm.

Lowman brought a negligence claim against Wilbur, Skagit County and Puget Sound Energy (“PSE”), among others. As to PSE and Skagit County, Lowman alleged negligent placement of the utility pole. PSE and Skagit County filed a joint motion for summary judgment solely on the issue of legal causation. Lowman presented evidence that the Skagit County utility pole placement standards require a 10 foot clear zone between the edge of the road and utility poles. There was also evidence in the record that Wilbur was speeding and driving under the influence at the time of the accident.

The trial court granted PSE and Skagit County’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that the placement of the utility...

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