The State of Tennessee, as well as the 96 counties that make up the State and scores of municipalities, assume the responsibility of designing, constructing and maintaining tens of thousands of miles of roadways throughout the State of Tennessee. Unfortunately, from time to time, citizens using these roadways are involved in serious and tragic accidents due, in large part, to the failure of the State, or a city or county, to properly design, construct, or maintain a safe roadway. This article addresses the legal responsibility of the State of Tennessee to those persons using roadways that are designed, constructed or maintained by the State of Tennessee. The principles of liability that apply to counties and municipalities are similar.
On December 5, 2000, Allison Hocker was driving her vehicle west on Hwy. 70 in Loudon County nearing the intersection of Hwy. 70 and Hwy. 11, commonly known as “Dixie Lee Junction.” The intersection of Hwy. 70 and Hwy. 11 had been revised and redesigned in 1999 under a grant awarded to Loudon County by the State of Tennessee as a result of studies performed by the State of Tennessee, as well as complaints made by Loudon County officials. The changes made in 1999 were completed in December of 1999. Ms. Hocker was unable to negotiate the intersection and, as a result, entered the traffic lanes of oncoming traffic and was seriously injured in the resulting collision.
As a result of the accident, Ms. Hocker filed a claim against the State of Tennessee in the Tennessee Claims Commission. In Tennessee, all injury claims against the State of Tennessee must be decided by one of the three “Claims Commissioners” appointed by the Governor instead of in State courts. The Claims Commissioner for the Eastern Division of Tennessee heard her case which included the expert testimony submitted by her attorneys as well as experts offered by attorneys for the State of Tennessee. The Commissioner concluded that the State of Tennessee was negligent in its design, construction, maintenance and inspection of this “confusing” intersection. However, the Commissioner also decided that Ms. Hocker was at fault and, in fact, found the parties equally at fault resulting in Ms. Hocker receiving no award of damages for her extensive injuries which included multiple fractures and a two-month hospitalization.
The decision of the Claims Commission was appealed to the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Eastern Division at Knoxville,Tennessee. The decision of the Court of Appeals was released on October 30, 2009. The Court of Appeals concluded that although some fault should be assigned to Ms. Hocker, the negligence of the State of Tennessee was greater than 50%, and as a result, Ms. Hocker was entitled to recover her damages against the State of Tennessee up to the $300,000.00 damages cap. In reversing the Claims Commission and finding in favor of Ms. Hocker, the Court of Appeals reasoned that under the law in Tennessee, the State had a duty to exercise reasonable care under all of the circumstances in planning, designing, constructing, and maintaining the State’s system of highways. The Court went on to say that in gauging whether the State had violated its duty, the Commissioner should consider several factors including (1) the physical aspects of the road; (2) the frequency of accidents at the site; and (3) expert testimony addressing these issues. After a careful review of all of the evidence in Ms. Hocker’s case, the Court of Appeals concluded that the State was, in fact, more at fault than Ms. Hocker.
One of the factors that both the Claims Commission and the Court of Appeals considered in the Hocker case included the adequacy of signage and other warning devices in preparing Ms. Hocker and other drivers approaching the dangerous intersection condition. In addition, the Court of Appeals considered the prior experience of Ms. Hocker in respect to this particular intersection, as well as the numbers and types of accidents that had occurred at this intersection prior to Ms. Hocker’s accident.
The Hocker case is not unlike many other tragic accidents that occur in Tennessee each year that go unnoticed. The State of Tennessee has a duty to design, construct and maintain its highway system in a safe condition. Frequently, motorists involved in either single vehicle accidents or multi-vehicle accidents fail to consider the potential liability of the State of Tennessee or a county or municipality in completely and fully investigating and analyzing the accident dynamics. Poor signage, poor road design, roadway flooding, improper banking, and many other avoidable conditions frequently constitute dangerous conditions on highways and roadways throughout Tennessee and can be the basis of a recovery of damages for injured victims.
If you need more information about a personal injury matter (car wreck, boating accident, slip and fall, etc.), Social Security Disability or SSI matter, or a workers compensation matter, please contact the Law Offices of Tony Farmer and John Dreiser for a free case evaluation. We can be reached at (865) 584-1211 or (800) 806-4611 or by e-mail at John@farmerdreiser.com, through Facebook, or through our website at www.farmerdreiser.com. Our office handles claims throughout East Tennessee, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Kingsport, Bristol, Johnson City, Morristown, Maryville, Rogersville, Dandridge, Tazewell, New Tazewell, Jefferson City, Strawberry Plains, Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Loudon, Kingston, Halls, Maynardville, Crossville, Cookeville, Sweetwater, Lenoir City, Athens, Oak Ridge, Clinton, LaFollette, Lake City, Jacksboro, Bean Station, Cosby, Newport, White Pine, Mosheim, Wartburg, Sunbright, Pigeon Forge, and Deer Lodge.