The question of who is at fault is one issue that can come into play in the aftermath of a car accident. While the typical disagreement is between the drivers, the question can also implicate utility companies and the city or county that maintained utility poles and roads.
To succeed in a claim for negligence in Washington, such as after a car accident, the plaintiff must show four things: (1) that a legal duty of some sort existed, (2) that there was a breach of that duty, (3) injury to the plaintiff, and (4) that the breach caused the injury. A local government is generally held to the same standards as a private individual. At least as early as 1956, Washington courts ruled that a local government owes a duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition, or at least that they be safe to someone using them in an ordinary way. This last point was reinforced when, in 1981, the legislature adopted the concept of “comparative fault.” This means that the jury must determine how much of the injury was the plaintiff’s fault, and reduce their ultimate award by that among (for example, if the plaintiff was 10 percent at fault, the award is reduced by 10 percent). Subsequently, the courts continued to find that the county or city only owed a duty to those who use the roads in a non-negligent way.
This changed in 2002, however. That year the Washington Supreme Court considered the matter again. In Keller v. City of Spokane, a personal injury suit arose from an accident at an intersection where not all sides had stop signs. The plaintiff sued the other driver and the city, and alleged that the city had been negligent in not installing additional stop signs. The Washington Supreme Court ruled that the duty by municipalities was owed whether the plaintiff had been acting negligently or not.
This type of case came before the court again in 2013. The plaintiff in Loman v. Wilbur was injured while a passenger in a car. The driver lost control of the vehicle, which left the road and struck a utility pole. He subsequently sued the city and the power company which placed the pole. The issue raised on appeal was one of legal causation, or as the court explained, “how far the consequences of a defendant’s acts should extend.” The court re-affirmed the ruling from 2002 Keller decision that someone can succeed in lawsuit against a local government or utility for the negligent design or maintenance of a road even when the plaintiff was negligent also. The court then addressed the question of whether the plaintiff’s actions were unforeseeable, meaning it would not be fair as a matter of policy to hold the utility company responsible.
Ultimately, the court said that it was foreseeable, and the utility company could be found liable. In the court’s words: “Whatever the reason for a car’s departure from a roadway, as a matter of policy we reject the notion that a negligently placed utility pole cannot be the cause of resulting injury.”
As with any case, the court reiterated that this was a legal question only, and then the facts could affect the result. Each case must be taken on its own. If you have suffered an injury in a car accident or any situation where someone else may be at fault, you should contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible.