Johann F. Szautner, P.E.
The Problem: Significant progress has been made over the last 30 years in reducing vehicular roadway fatalities, with a consistent effort to eliminate roadway defects, and where this is not feasible to provide effective guarding and/or warning. However, it is often overlooked that roadways not only serve motorists, but also need to accommodate safe pedestrian travel, especially in rural areas, where sidewalks and dedicated road crossings are often lacking. Unsafe roadsides, such as steep embankments or insufficiently guarded and lit bridges, where pedestrian traffic occurs, may be perceived reasonably safe for vehicular travel, but often lead to pedestrian falls, resulting in fatalities or severe injuries.
The Accident: On a late overcast summer night, a pedestrian suffered multiple injuries when he was caused to fall 6 feet during ordinary travel on a narrow dead end road, and landed in the bed of the adjacent creek. He was attending a wedding reception at a venue located at the end of the road. The reception ended around 11:00 P.M., and guests waited for a hired bus.
After a half hour wait the bus did not arrive. The pedestrian volunteered to walk down the road to see if the bus was waiting at the intersection with the main road. He did this because he had overheard the bus driver complaining about the narrow road and the difficulty to turn around, after they had arrived at the reception.
After he left to find the bus, and at some point during his travel, came upon a driveway intersection with a bridge over an adjacent creek. He did not see the unguarded elevation drop-off and stepped off the bridge deck and fell in the creek. The plaintiff brought a negligence suit against the owners of the adjacent bridge, all adjacent property owners responsible for road maintenance, the owners of the bridge, and the municipality.
Engineering Analysis: During my investigation, I found out that the dead end road was held in private ownership, and located within a utility and public access easement. Since the municipality was a tenant on one of the properties, it also participated in road maintenance with the adjacent property owners. The unguarded driveway bridge from which the plaintiff fell was in joined ownership of the two adjacent property owners. The dead end road measures 13.5 feet in width and the unguarded driveway bridge abuts directly onto the road pavement. The bridge deck is 6 feet above the creek, and has 6 inch curbing on each side of the deck, presumably to indicate the driveway limits. The dead end road traverses a heavily wooded area, and the tree canopy completely shades it during the day and restricts natural night time sky lighting. Street lights are placed at the upper end of the dead end road, where there is a concentration of buildings, but stop within 50 feet of the driveway bridge. Illumination measurements were taken under similar atmospheric conditions as existed on the night of the accident and ranged from 0.05 foot candles to 0.10 foot candles within the area of the driveway intersection. They dropped to 0.02 foot candles at the beginning of the driveway pavement and were not readable on the light meter at the point where plaintiff stepped off the bridge.
While the existing roadway conditions in general were hazardous because of the narrow roadway width, and curved alignment, the root cause of the pedestrian’s fall and injury were the absence of a barrier and lighting at the unguarded driveway bridge. The bridge on private property did not comply with building, maintenance and safety codes. Code compliance addresses the functional and structural adequacy of the bridge, and additionally the safety of occupants, visitors and guests using this bridge. The purpose of these codes is to establish the minimum requirements to safeguard the public health, safety and general welfare to life and property, and to provide safety to fire fighters and emergency responders during emergency operations.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation issues standards for the design and construction of local roads. These standards are typically adopted and/or referenced in municipal regulations, and in many cases, equally applied to public and private roads. Standards have been developed to provide uniform procedures and guidelines for the creation of safe, convenient and attractive local roads and streets in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The municipality, who is a tenant on a property at subject road and participates in maintenance, knew or should have known of the unreasonably dangerous condition that the driveway bridge presented. The municipality has a duty to uphold its existing codes and regulations and to protect the public health, safety and welfare. The municipality had notice of this unreasonably dangerous condition, at least for 3 years, when another guest at a wedding also fell off this unguarded bridge.
The plaintiff settled with all defendants for an undisclosed amount.
The municipal engineer, who provided engineering services, including land development plan reviews, was not a party in the ensuing litigation. However, through his work and by attending municipal meetings he knew or should have known of the hazardous conditions the subject bridge and roadway represented and therefore had an ethical obligation to warn the governing body of the dangerous situation and to advise of how it can be remedied. Whether or not he did is not known; one can only hope that he did.
Mr. Szautner, P.E., D.I., is a Professional Engineering Consultant, specializing in Forensic Engineering. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.