Posted On: January 7, 2012 by Robinson Calcagnie Robinson Shapiro Davis, Inc.

ROADWAY DESIGN: ADMISSIBILITY OF PRIOR ACCIDENTS

Ceja v. Department of Transportation, (Fifth District, November 12, 2011) 2011 WL 6307881, --- Cal.Rptr. 3d ----

The heirs of two men who were killed when their vehicle crossed a center median on a six-lane state highway and collided with oncoming vehicles, filed an action for wrongful death against the Department of Transportation. The plaintiffs alleged that the roadway was in a dangerous condition due the absence of a median barrier to prevent cross-median accidents, despite a number of prior similar collisions. At trial the plaintiffs introduced evidence showing there had been a history of accidents at the location, and that several years earlier state engineers had recommended a barrier, which had not yet been installed as of the 2003 accident.

The trial court granted a motion in limine to exclude evidence of accidents which had occurred prior to 1994, when the roadway had been widened from 4 lanes to 6, finding that the conditions were substantially different than those which existed at the time of the accident. Following a jury verdict in favor of the State, the plaintiffs appealed, contending that the trial court had erroneously excluded the pre-1994 accidents. However, the court of appeal affirmed the judgment, holding that the trial court had not abused its discretion in excluding accidents which had occurred before the highway was substantially changed:

"Appellants acknowledge that the highway changed but nevertheless argue that the accident history for the road when it was four lanes is relevant to prove that the now six-lane road was in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident.

The trial court has discretion to admit evidence of prior accidents where the conditions existing at the time of the respective accidents are shown to be similar. (Johnston v. County of Yolo (1969) 274 Cal.App.2d 46, 59; Martindale v. Atchison, T. & S.F. Ry. Co. (1948) 89 Cal.App.2d 400, 411.) “Where a dangerous condition of property is involved, there must be proof that there was no substantial change during the interval between the accidents under consideration.” (Alwood v. City of Los Angeles (1956) 139 Cal.App.2d 49, 58.)

Here, there was a substantial change in the physical conditions existing at the time of the pre–1994 accidents and the Ceja accident. The highway went from four lanes of freeway and expressway to six lanes of freeway and the transitions from six lanes to four lanes at each end of the section were eliminated. Thus, traffic congestion was relieved at this location. Under these circumstances, the trial court did not exceed the bounds of reason when it excluded the pre–1994 accident history. This evidence was not relevant. The accidents that occurred on the four-lane highway would not have a tendency to prove that the six-lane highway was in a dangerous condition. Rather, one would expect a six-lane highway to be safer than a four-lane highway."

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