A man injured in a 1997 auto accident has won a $25 million verdict — thought to be a record in Clay County — against the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission and the other driver who hit his car, but he may be able to collect only $125,000.
Under the sovereign immunity cap in place at the time, MHTC’s liability is limited to $100,000, and the other driver’s policy limits were $25,000.
Michael Matteuzzi of Kansas City, the plaintiff’s lawyer, tried to avoid the damage cap by naming a highway worker whose job included placing warning signs in the construction zone, but the trial court dismissed the worker under the public duty doctrine. The doctrine provides immunity from personal liability to government workers acting within the scope of their employment.
Click here for a report on the March 7 verdict in Angell v. Eaton et al.
On Sept. 15, 1997 Angell, a 26-year-old bank vice president, was a passenger in a co-worker’s car on northbound Interstate 35 near the Fishing River Bridge. The stretch of highway they were traveling was part of a 10-mile long construction project.
A work crew unrelated to the construction project had closed the right lane of the bridge for a bridge inspection. Approximately 500 feet before the lane closure, Angell’s driver merged into the left lane of traffic in front of William Eaton. Eaton rear-ended Angell’s car, causing it go off the road and overturn. Angell, who was ejected from the car, broke his back and was rendered quadriplegic.
Angell claimed that MHTC workers had failed to set out warning signs at a proper distance from the lane closure. He said that the signage that was in place was inadequate and that it failed to comply with the standards used by MHTC, which require signage a mile ahead of a lane closure.
Angell also claimed that Kevin Raithel, the individual crew member who was responsible for the sign placement that day, was negligent. And he said Eaton, the driver of the other car, failed to keep a careful lookout. Angell did not sue the co-worker driving his car because the claim was preempted by Workers’ Compensation Act.
Ten days before trial, the judge ruled that Raithel was protected by the public duty doctrine, and dismissed the case against him.
The case proceeded to trial against Eaton and MHTC. MHTC argued that the work crew had set out the proper signage, and presented testimony from both the crew and two highway patrol officers that the signage was in place.
After a two-week trial, the jury found them jointly and severally liable for a verdict of $25 million.
“Based on witness statements, we believe the accident was caused by an improper lane closure,” said Matteuzzi, Angell’s lawyer.
“The area of the accident was within the boundaries of a construction project. We named all the parties related to the project [in the suit].
“MHTC said the accident was due to driver error, but we felt it was a highway department induced error.” Matteuzzi said that they presented several eyewitnesses who testified that numerous drivers were forced into last second lane changes.
He also plans to appeal the dismissal of defendant Raithel on the basis of the public duty doctrine.
Zachary Cart-wright, regional counsel for MHTC, explained in his motion to dismiss Raithel as a defendant that at “the time of the accident, Raithel was a public employee engaged in the performance of his duties. As such, he owed a duty to the general public, and not to plaintiff or any other particular individual.”
Cartwright cited Beaver v. Gosney, 825 SW2d 870 (Mo. App. 1992), as the dispositive case on the issue. In Beaver, a police officer had failed to place flares or other warning devices around a disabled car, and also failed to direct traffic safely around the vehicle. The trial court sustained the officer’s motion to dismiss and the court of appeals upheld the decision. The appellate court held: “The public duty doctrine holds that public officers are not liable in tort for injuries or damages sustained by particular individuals that result from a breach of duty that officers owe to the general public.”
Cartwright said the only exception to the public duty doctrine — the operation of a government motor vehicle — did not apply in this case.
David Ransin, a Springfield attorney who recently negotiated a $3.9 million settlement in a case against MHTC involving a state truck driver, said the nature of the public officer’s activity is the critical factor.
“It doesn’t really matter if someone is driving or if it’s a property maintenance problem,” Ransin said. “The question is whether … the employee owes a general duty to the public or a specific duty to the plaintiff.” In addition, “you must have a negligent act or omission of an employee that contributed to a dangerous condition,” he said.
Due to application of the public duty doctrine in Angell’s case, Ransin said that under the sovereign immunity caps in place at the time of the accident MHTC is only liable for $100,000.
Cartwright, MHTC’s regional counsel, told Lawyers Weekly, “We stand behind the truthfulness of our employees, that they did nothing to cause an accident.” He declined to further discuss the case.
Matt Mulhern of Kansas City, attorney for defendant Eaton, said that his client had policy limits of $25,000. He declined to comment further, saying the focus of the case was really on the lane closure.
Ransin also had advice on how to gather relevant evidence regarding the condition of a scene at the time of an accident. He said an often overlooked resource is the helicopter ambulance crew. According to Ransin, a helicopter crew usually carries a camera and will take photos of the scene from the air in order to aid doctors in the emergency room in assessing injuries.
Moreover, news crews and ambulance teams are also potential third-party witnesses to the condition of the scene immediately after an accident. Immediate contact with these witnesses can often provide the only information about the overall conditions at the scene, Ransin said.
Questions or comments may be directed to [email protected].
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$25 Million Verdict
A man paralyzed in an auto accident sued the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission, claiming that a work crew had failed to properly use signs alerting drivers of a lane closure.
On Sept. 15, 1997 Brian Angell was a passenger in a car traveling northbound in rush hour traffic on Interstate 35 outside Kansas City. As the car approached a bridge, the driver became aware of a lane closure.
Approximately 500 feet before the closure, Angell’s driver merged into the left lane. William Eaton, who was already in the left lane, rear-ended the car Angell was in. The car moved back into the right lane, then onto the shoulder, where it eventually flipped over.
Angell, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected. He was left a C-3 quadripelgic.
At trial, Angell said MHTC workers had failed to set out the required signs warning of the upcoming lane closure, causing cars to switch lanes with little notice at high speed.
He also argued that Eaton had failed to keep a careful lookout, which caused the collision.
MHTC presented testimony from crew members and state highway patrol officers that its workers had complied with standard warning sign procedure, which calls for signage to begin one mile before the lane closure.
A jury returned a verdict for $25 million against both defendants, with no allocation of fault.
Type of Action: Automobile accident
Type of Injuries: Quadriplegia
Court/Case Number/Date: Clay County Circuit Court/CV199-2570CC/ March 7, 2003
Caption: Angell v. Eaton, et al.
Judge, Jury or ADR: Jury
Name of Judge: David W. Russell
Special Damages: $12 million past and future medical expense; $3 million past and future wage loss
Verdict or Settlement: $25 million verdict
Allocation of Fault: None
Last Offer: $25,000 from Eaton
Last Demand: None
Attorneys for Plaintiff: Michael D. Matteuzzi and Michael L. Belancio, Niewald, Waldeck & Brown, Kansas City
Insurance Carrier: American Family for Eaton; MHTC, self insured
Plaintiff’s Experts: Gary Alexander, Rockville, Md. (human factors); Roy Anderson, Sequim, Wash. (work zone safety); Peter Formuzis, Santa Ana, Calif. (economist); Bill Kennedy, Witchita, Kan. (accident reconstruction); Dr. Terry Winkler, Springfield (future medicial)
Defendant’s Experts: James Locke, College Station, Texas (accident reconstruction)