Cities Are Responsible for Maintaining Road Signs

When an Oregon road traffic accident occurs, it’s quite natural and understandable that the people involved in determining where the fault lies for that accident will take a close look at the actions of the drivers involved just prior to the collision. Unless freak weather, icy roads, falling trees or some other entirely unforeseen event caused the crash, what else could it be besides the actions of one or more of the drivers?

Take the case of little Maya Hirsch, who was killed by a hit and run driver as she crossed a Chicago street near the Lincoln Park Zoo in 2006. This would appear to be an open and shut case where only one person was to blame, and there were a number of witnesses to the accident who confirmed the man behind the wheel of the Lexus blew the stop sign. In fact, once the driver was tracked down and arrested, he admitted to hitting Maya, her mother and 6-year-old brother, but he swore in court that he hadn’t seen the stop sign in question.

A Chicago city council committee investigated, because when cities are responsible for maintaining road signs, they can be held liable for traffic accidents that occur when the signs haven’t been maintained or installed to city, state and federal codes. In the case of Maya Hirsch, the committee decided that Chicago should pay $3.25 million to the little girl’s family. The man who hit Maya, Michael Roth, was also sentenced to eight years in prison; he died there in 2008.

The family sued the city, the public body responsible for maintaining road signs

After listening to Roth’s testimony, the Hirsch family investigated his claims, then filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to properly maintain, not just the stop sign, but other traffic markings at the intersection where Maya was killed. Before the case could get to court, Chicago officials admitted their ability to defend itself was severely undermined by a number of factors, including:

  • The stop sign that would have been on Roth’s right hand side was “at least two inches lower” than the seven feet mandated by law and the city’s own installation manual. This was confirmed by First Deputy Corporation Counsel Leslie Darling.
  • A “No Parking – Tow Zone” sign was located just over 11 feet from the stop sign. City ordinates prohibit parking with 30 feet of an intersection.
  • Because the sign was too near the intersection, cars that were actually legally parked based on the sign’s position interfered with Roth’s ability to see the stop sign and restricted his visibility of the intersection.
  • The painted crosswalk and stop bar lines at the intersection had not been re-painted for six years. As such, they had become faded and worn.
  • Finally, the natural, unbroken foliage to the east of the intersection, which led to a dead end at Lincoln Park, when combined with the city’s negligence in maintaining road signs, created a condition where the intersection was inconspicuous at best. Darling said it was conceivable that Roth didn’t realize he had to stop, under the circumstances.

Roth maintained to the day he died that he did not see a stop sign; nor did he see the intersection or the Hirsch family. While that may seem unlikely, his claims were supported by written statements from a number of Lincoln Park residents. They said motorists “regularly drove through the intersection without stopping.” To make the city’s case even more precarious, two witnesses said they had notified the city of the problem long before Maya was killed.

Chicago took action…but too late for Maya

Two days after the accident, the city of Chicago took actions directly related to the fatal hit and run. Then they strengthened the existing laws to crack down on people running through stop signs. Among the changes introduced:

  • They replaced the stop sign at the intersection with an over-sized sign and made sure it was precisely seven feet above the ground.
  • They moved the No Parking – Tow Zone sign 30 feet back from the stop sign.
  • One year later, the city rebuilt the entire intersection and included a raised crosswalk, to give drivers greater visibility of pedestrians.
  • New fines were introduced, including:
    • $300 for the first offense of running a stop sign
    • $1,000 for three or more violations
    • Mandatory appearances in court

Officials estimated that the new fines and penalties would increase the number of people being forced to appear in court from about 30,000 per year up to more than 50,000. According to a Chicago police spokesman, this should make people think twice about running stop signs; particularly the mandatory appearances in court.

Oregon cities are also responsible for maintaining road signs

Statutes are already in place that clearly state Oregon cities and counties are responsible for maintaining road signs in a safe and prescribed manner. Included in Chapter 565 Oregon Laws 2001, Section 1, is the statement, “…it is the public policy of the State of Oregon to promote cooperation between the Department of Transportation and counties on road maintenance projects when it results in an overall benefit to the public.

The law goes on to state that “…the department may establish an intergovernmental road maintenance agreement that will govern the maintenance of state highways and county roads… An agreement under this section shall require highways and roads to be maintained in accordance with standards mutually established by the Oregon Transportation Commission and the county governing body.

What does this mean for the injured party?

Because cities and counties are responsible for maintaining road signs to keep intersections and other road areas as safe as possible, it’s quite possible that anyone injured in an Oregon traffic accident may be in a position to file a personal injury lawsuit against multiple defendants. This is a complicated process, however.

For starters, there are very rigid statutes of limitation when government agencies are being sued. If these time limits are not met, the case will be thrown out. In addition, there’s the question of how much blame do you apportion to the at-fault driver and how much to the city or county.

Taking such a case in Oregon often requires testimony by independent accident reconstruction specialists. Working out liability will certainly require the assistance of a highly qualified and vastly experienced Portland personal injury attorney.

A good personal injury lawyer will know how to assess damages, where to find the necessary specialists to testify on your behalf, and when the time limits for filing your lawsuit will expire. They will also negotiate with the at-fault driver’s insurance company and give you a good idea of the kind of compensation you can expect to receive. The consultation is completely free of charge, so if you find yourself thinking of making a claim for your injuries, give the lawyer a call first.