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Defective Traffic Signals: No Governmental Accountability

Since 2000, Michigan courts have granted immunity from liability to all Michigan governmental units responsible for traffic-control signals (cities, townships, counties and the state) — even in situations where the governmental unit is aware or has been placed on notice that the traffic-control signal is malfunctioning or missing.

Michigan law states, “local authorities…shall place and maintain such traffic control devices upon highways under their jurisdiction as they may deem necessary to…regulate, warn or guide traffic.” The Michigan Supreme Court held that, because local authorities “are required” to do what they deem necessary to control traffic, they cannot be subject to liability because the statute does not specifically impose tort liability. Nawrocki v Macomb County Road Commission, 463 Mich. 143 (2000).

The Michigan Legislature has long allowed a “highway exception” to governmental immunity, meaning that governmental units can be held liable for injuries caused by the failure to repair and maintain the “highway.” However, current Michigan Supreme Court decisions have eroded the meaning of “highway” to mean only the “roadbed actually designed for public vehicular travel” and nothing more.
Traffic-control signals, warning signs, light poles, lighting, sightlines and even the shoulder, which we as users of the highway know are necessary for safe and predictable travel, are not now considered part of the “highway”. Marchyok v City of Ann Arbor, 260 Mich. App. 684 (2004).

A recent case tried before the Saginaw County Circuit Court dealt with the issue of faulty traffic-control signals. The plaintiff was hit by a truck as he was walking across a street. The defendant driver was turning left on a steady green-arrow traffic signal, and the plaintiff was in the crosswalk when he was hit and severely injured.

The plaintiff had obeyed the pedestrian “walk” signal. The pedestrian and automobile traffic signals were not operating properly. After the walk signal illuminated for three seconds, the steady green arrow would also illuminate for traffic turning left, creating a hazard. The jury ruled against the defendant, but found the plaintiff to be “35% comparatively negligent” (35% at fault), which decreased the jury verdict for plaintiff’s pain and suffering by 35%. Lee v Chandler, Saginaw County Circuit Court Case No. 04-54826-NI (February 20, 2007).

Although the plaintiff in Lee was a pedestrian, the issues would be the same if he had been walking or riding a bike (or even driving a car). First, the City of Saginaw could not be named as a defendant — even though it was clearly and solely responsible for creating and maintaining this hazardous condition — because of the recent decisions of the Michigan Supreme Court that have overruled long-standing precedent.

Second, if the jury had found the plaintiff more than 50% at fault, he would have been prevented by law from recovering a penny. Third, the truck driver (or more precisely his no-fault automobile-insurance carrier) is solely responsible for paying for the injuries — even though he was also obeying the traffic-control device. We wonder how much his insurance rate went up or whether he can even find a company that will insure him now?

All traffic-control devices need scheduled maintenance and periodic repairs. They need to be “timed” and positioned properly for safety and traffic flow by an expert. They need maintenance even as simple as cutting away plant growth so they can be seen. Now that governmental units have absolutely no accountability for failing to repair or maintain these important and life-saving devices (even after notice of a defect or potential problem), do you think they will do so in this time of budget cuts?

Our prediction, unfortunately, is that we will see more and more injuries to users of the “highway” because of faulty or even missing traffic-control devices. If you feel as strongly about this issue as we do, stay informed, write asking your representative to change the Michigan statute, and vote accordingly.
As always, enjoy your ride and be safe!


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