It’s a cliché: safety is everyone’s responsibility. It is also, however, true, and that fact was reinforced last week by Washington State’s Supreme Court. According to an Associated Press dispatch, republished by The Oregonian, the court held that “cities, counties and utility companies can be liable when faulty road design leads to injuries in car crashes – even when the driver is drunk.”
According to the news agency the case focused on a crash near Anacortes. “Two people who had been drinking were injured when their car ran off the road and struck a utility pole that was reportedly closer to the roadway than guidelines dictated.” In overturning a lower court ruling the state Supreme Court held that “government entities owe a duty to ensure roads are reasonably safe for public travel, no matter whether the driver is at fault,” according to the AP.
Obviously this is not, and ought not to be taken as, an excuse of or license for drunk driving. Indeed, in legal terms it is important to remember that DUI is a crime regardless of whether one gets involved in an accident or not. In this instance, however, the court was addressing a bigger issue: whether a driver’s physical condition at the time of a particular accident can be used as an excuse by government or a utility company to escape responsibility for its own negligence. The court held that government and public utilities both have a broader responsibility to provide a safe environment for all users of public roadways. The bad behavior of individual drivers does not absolve the city or county from their responsibility to provide a roadway that is safe for everyone – regardless of the irresponsible behavior of some individual drivers.
As an Oregon and Washington personal injury attorney this is the type of case that reminds me why our legal system is so important. At its core, this case is an example of the important role our courts play in ensuring the safety of every Oregonian and Washingtonian. Only the legal system offers ordinary citizens the ability to have a fair hearing in which they stand on equal terms with both government and powerful corporations (in this case, the utilities). Guidelines that have been established through legislation or regulation with the broad public good in mind cannot be ignored by either private companies or by government itself simply because they are inconvenient.
AP via The Oregonian: Washington Cities Can be Liable in DUI Crash