Sight Obstructions

Posted Tuesday, September 06, 2016 by Ed Harper

Sight Obstructions

Municipalities (state, county, and city governments) have a duty to maintain roadside vegetation to prevent and remove excess sight obstructions. So, not only do they have a responsibility for the roadway, but also for the surrounding areas.

In the case Wuthrich v. King County (January 2016), the Washington Supreme Court determined King County must allow a jury to make a decision on their negligent maintenance of roadside obstructions which may have caused a horrific collision in Redmond, Washington. In the case, two vehicles violently collided at an intersection of Avondale Road and 159th Street. One driver, Ms. Gilland, was facing a stop sign at the intersection. Mr. Wuthrich, the other driver, was on Avondale and proceeding forward without any traffic control device.

Ms. Gilland states she looked but did not see Mr. Wuthrich approaching. Mr. Wuthrich sued King County for the injuries he sustained because overgrown shrubbery obstructed Ms. Gilland’s view of the intersection, and thus did not see Mr. Wuthrich’s vehicle. The trial court dismissed Mr. Wuthrich’s case against the county, and the Court of Appeals affirmed this decision, bringing the case to the Washington Supreme Court.

The court reversed the lower courts and stated counties are held to a reasonableness standard. Thus, they must act reasonably keeping their roadways safe for ordinary travel. An unsafe condition potentially caused by a roadside condition like vegetation or other sight obstructions.

Gilland testified her view was obstructed by blackberry bushes. Thus, a question of fact remained for the jury to decide: “Whether the roadway was reasonably safe and whether it was reasonable for the county to take or not take any corrective actions are questions of fact that must be answered in light of the totality of the circumstances.” (Xiao Ping Chen v. City of Seattle, 153 Wn.App. 890, at 901)

“In sum, we reaffirm that a municipality has a dut to take reasonable steps to remove or correct for hazardous conditions that make a roadway unsafe for ordinary travel and now explicitly hold that this includes hazardous conditions created by roadside vegetation.” (Wuthrich v. King County, 185 Wn.2d 22, at 27)

So, what does this mean for the ordinary traveler / driver on the road? Yes, the county may be on the hook for Mr. Wuthrich’s injuries, but Mr. Wuthrich is still severely injured due to Ms. Gilland pulling out in front of his vehicle. The obligation of a driver, especially a driver turning their vehicle to the left in front of other vehicles, is to see that which is there to be seen. Ms. Gilland failed to see Mr. Wuthrich’s vehicle, but she has an excuse and the county may have to step up and pay for their share of Mr. Wuthrich’s injuries.

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