Supreme Court Issues Guardrail Ruling
March 13, 2018
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling determining that the PA Department of Transportation – more commonly known as PennDOT – is liable for defective and dangerous guardrails installed on major commuter roadways across the state.
In 2015, a husband and wife lost control of their vehicle on a snow-covered and icy roadway in Beaver County, PA. The car slammed into a guardrail, which entered the vehicle and injured the female driver. She sustained bone fractures throughout her leg, foot and toes. Her husband claimed a loss of consortium, which refers to a deprivation of certain benefits specific to a family or spousal relationship as a result of injuries. The plaintiffs alleged that if the guardrails (which were installed by PennDOT) had been installed (and maintained) correctly, functioned safely and had been rated “crashworthy” that the injuries experienced by the wife would have been much less severe and debilitating.
The ruling noted that it’s reasonable for drivers to assume that guardrails are installed on roadways to prevent – not to increase – harm and injury. And usually, that’s true. Guardrails are intended to keep people and vehicles from accessing certain unsafe and restricted areas. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the first and foremost goal of installing a guardrail is to “shield a motorist who has left the roadway”. In the case of the claimants, the defective and unsafe guardrail caused additional injury instead of offering crucial protection.
Researchers determine whether or not a guardrail is crashworthy – or that it meets current crash testing criteria – through various methods of safety testing. The DOT says that tested and approved guardrails are able to:
- Absorb the energy created from a collision during a crash;
- Slow vehicles down to a complete stop as well as sometimes letting them slow down and moving past the guardrail, and:
- Redirect vehicles safely back to a roadway
In the case of PennDOT’s guardrails, the plaintiffs alleged that the department was negligent by installing a “boxing glove” style guardrail, as well as by failing to inspect and properly maintain it. “Boxing glove” guardrails are known to have blunted ends – and sometimes they can penetrate vehicles.
PennDOT’s primary mission is to oversee policies and programs that affect highways, railroads, airports, waterways and other public transportation systems. As such, most of PennDOT’s work includes maintaining, restoring and expanding highways. The safety of motorists needs to be a priority. The PA Supreme Court’s ruling means that these plaintiffs – as well as others who have been unnecessarily or excessively injured on statewide roadways – are allowed to file suit and can try to seek out financial damages against the agency.
According to data, the number of vehicle crashes in Pennsylvania increased nearly 2% between 2015 and 2016. Luckily, fatalities decreased by a bit more than 1%. Hitting into fixed objects – such as a guardrail – is the reason behind almost 30% of all accidents. This means that it is absolutely crucial for PennDOT to install safe and effective guardrails that not only decrease roadway dangers that motorists regularly face, but that also act as protective barriers in the case of accidents. DOT statistics indicate that the most at-risk groups for motor vehicle accidents in Pennsylvania are:
- Males between the ages of 21 and 25;
- Male and female drivers between 26 and 30-years old, and:
- All drivers between the ages of 16 and 20
Although drivers between the ages of 16 and 30-years-old should be especially cautious while operating a vehicle, the reality is that every single person needs to take general precautions and avoid other known risk factors when they get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Distracted driving, speeding, drowsy driving and driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs are some of the most common causes behind thousands of accidents, injuries and fatalities annually.
Most essentially, this recent legal ruling means that PennDOT doesn’t have legal immunity when it comes to installing defective and dangerous guardrails – and future litigation will tell whether or not the courts find the department liable for damages and injuries sustained by motorists. This ruling is an important one for injured motorists, particularly those who sustain additional or more severe injuries because of colliding with a guardrail installed by PennDOT.
Philadelphia Product Liability Lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP Represent Individuals Injured by Dangerous or Defective Products
If you were in a car accident because of unsafely installed or defective guardrails, please contact the Philadelphia product liability lawyers at Galfand Berger. With offices located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To schedule a consultation, call us at 800-222-8792 or complete our online contact form.