|Legal Opinion: |
Text of Document: August 12, 1997
Recently you contacted MTAS wanting to know if it was advisable for the city to install "speed bumps" on some city streets. My research on the subject indicates it is not.
T.C.A. 29-20-203 removes governmental immunity for injuries caused by unsafe streets. It reads:
Immunity from suit of a governmental entity is removed for any injury caused by a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition of any street, alley, sidewalk or highway, owned and controlled by such governmental entity. "Street" or "highway" includes traffic control devices thereon. (emphasis added)
The statue then goes on to provide that for liability to attach the governmental entity must have notice of this condition. This is often the entities' best defense. Unfortunately it would not apply in the situation of speed bumps under Glover v. Hardeman County, 707 S.W.2d 871 (Tenn.Ct.App. 1985). It holds that a governmental entity is deemed to have notice if it constructed or changed a road in a dangerous or defective manner. I think it is clear from the face of the statute that a speed bump could be considered a traffic control device which, if it caused injury, the city would probably be held liable for.
I believe this view is backed by case law. The closest Tennessee case on point is Thomas v. City of Johnson City, 18 TAM 35-7 Ct.App. ES (8/23/93). The plaintiff, while riding his bike at night, struck a depression caused by recent street excavation and backfill and was thrown from his bike with a broken arm as a result. Testimony established that the patch would be extremely difficult to see at night and that though the city had no formal notice of the condition it knew that such excavations often subsided and needed monitoring. The trial court ruled that the city's knowledge fulfilled the notice provision and apportioned fault at 85% for the city and 15% for the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals upheld this decision. Applying these facts to the situation presented, I think it is clear the city would face some if not indeed most of the liability for any injury that might result from the placement of speed bumps. Though placement of signs might lessen the city's liability, I don't think it would totally alleviate it.
Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Vicksburg v. Harralson, 101 So. 713, (Miss. 1924), the only definitive case on speed bumps, also supports my contentions. The city had placed a speed bump in the street close to a congested intersection and had placed a sign some fifty feet away from it warning motorists of its existence. The plaintiff claimed he did not see the sign nor the bump until it was too late to avoid an accident and that he was under the impression that a previous speed bump at the sight had been removed and not replaced. He argued that the placement of such a bump on a city street created a foreseeable risk of injury which amounted to negligence on behalf of the city. The city contended that it had the right to place the bump in the street to warn motorists of the dangers of the intersection thus preventing harms to the public. It further argued that no one would have been injured except for the plaintiff's own negligence and that he should have maintained a proper lookout to see the bump and slow down.
The Supreme Court of Mississippi agreed with the plaintiff stating:
We do not think the city had the right to place a dangerous device or obstruction in its street making it unsafe, and would likely injure persons traveling in automobiles over it. The purpose of the bumper was to bump and injure persons in the automobiles crossing over it, even at a lawful rate of speed, who might fail to see it or become aware of its presence until they were so close that they would be unable to reduce the speed and prevent an injury when crossing it... The method of inuring one person on order to prevent danger is wrong in principle, as we see it, and is not such a reasonable regulation for the public safety as is warranted under the law, but is negligence.
Though this case is admittedly dated, it is not to hard to imagine a court agreeing with this logic. It is worthwhile to point out that at the time this case was decided it was much more difficult to successfully sue governmental entities than it is now. In light of the statute and case law, I do not feel that the city should place speed bumps in its streets and expect to avoid any liability.
Please feel free to contact me if I may be of any further assistance on this or any other matter.