The North Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling recently that may have broad implications for the loved ones of victims seeking to hold the state liable for certain kinds of negligence which ultimately contributes to fatal car crashes.
The Supreme Court held that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) may be sued for negligence due to alleged road disrepair in the wake of an accident.
The case before the court involved a 2002 car accident in Johnston County. A woman driving with three passengers was forced to drive onto the shoulder due to the poor condition of the road. Unfortunately, the shoulder was eroding, which caused the driver to overcorrect and crash into another vehicle. This head-on collision resulted in four fatalities.
The estates of three of the victims sued DOT for negligence. The lawsuit claimed the road had been in poor condition for a long time and DOT “failed to make appropriate repair(s).” According to the lawsuit, the driver was well within the speed limit at the time of the accident and would not have had to veer off of the road had it been in acceptable condition.
Government institutions are often protected from liability by two doctrines, referred to as sovereign immunity and the public duty doctrine. In this case, though, the Supreme Court held DOT is not protected from the suit on those grounds. In fact, the court ruled that DOT could be liable for accidents even from years prior.
To prevail in the case, though, the plaintiffs have a high standard to meet. They must prove that DOT had a “willful disregard” for the consequences attributed to the road disrepair. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision will ultimately open doors for the loved ones of victims that have been shut until now.