County May Be Liable for "High-Flying" Stop Sign

Improper road maintenance by municipal authorities often lead to otherwise preventable motor vehicle accidents. And not all maintenance issues involve the roads themselves. As one recent tragic case demonstrates, an improperly maintained road sign can be just as dangerous to drivers and pedestrians as a pothole.

Honer v. McComb

In May 2006, a man was driving a car in Rochester, New York, when he hit a stop sign on the sidewalk. The impact caused the sign and its post to detach from the base and fly into the air. When the sign fell back to the ground, it hit a pedestrian on the sidewalk, who suffered a “catastrophic spinal injury,” according to court records.

The pedestrian sued the driver and owner of the car that hit the stop sign, as well as Monroe County, which was responsible for maintaining the stop sign under a contract with the City of Rochester. The county moved for summary judgment, arguing it could not be held liable for negligence in this case. Monroe County Supreme Court denied the county's motion, and the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, affirmed in a March 27 order.

The Fourth Department disagreed with the county's position it did not owe the victim a “duty of care.” Because the county signed a “comprehensive agreement” with the City of Rochester, assuming responsibility for the city's “traffic engineering services,” the county had effectively displaced the city as the party liable for any defect in the maintenance of the stop sign. “Specifically,” the Fourth Department observed, “the County had a duty to properly reinstall the sign in 1999, including using proper materials, installing the sign's post at the appropriate depth in the ground on a proper base, and placing the sign at the required distance from the roadway.”

This does not necessarily mean the county is liable (or partially liable) for the victim's injuries. The victim must still establish the improper installation of the stop sign was a “proximate cause” of her injuries. Before the Supreme Court, the county presented an expert witness affidavit who argued it was not. But the plaintiff presented her own expert affidavit, which argued to the contrary. The Fourth Department therefore said there remained a disputed issue of fact which would have to be settled by the Supreme Court at trial. The trial court will determine whether or not the county's improper maintenance in effect converted the stop sign into a “high-flying projectile” when hit by the other defendants' car.

An Attorney Can Help

Personal injury cases often turn on very specific factual issues. In the case above, the county's agreement with the City of Rochester established it owed a legal duty to the victim, which may lead to her recovering damages. Likewise, the trial will revolve around a careful examination of the circumstances surrounding the installation of the stop sign.

If you have been the victim in a motor vehicle accident due to another party's negligence, it is important you work with an experienced attorney who can guide you through these often complex factual questions. If you would like to speak with a New York accident attorney right away, contact our office.