Court rejects Oakland County’s excuse for creating loose-gravel hazard that caused motorcycle crash in White Lake, MI
One thing about motorcycle accident cases: it never ceases to amaze me or our other motorcycle lawyers just how far defendants will go to avoid being held accountable for the harms and injuries their negligence causes.
My latest example is a recent case where a motorcyclist was seriously injured as a result of a loose-gravel hazard in White Lake, Michigan and the Oakland County Road Commission ignored both the facts and the law to avoid paying.
Fortunately, the unanimous three-judge appellate panel in Paletta v. Oakland County Road Commission, et al. saw the shenanigans for what they were: unsubstantiated excuses.
Accordingly, the Court held that the Oakland County Road Commission is not immune from a motorcyclist’s injury lawsuit.
The Oakland County motorcycle accident
Joseph Paletta was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash on Union Lake Road near the Glascow Drive intersection in White Lake Township. Mr. Paletta lost control of his motorcycle and crashed after he “struck loose gravel in the travel portion of the asphalt roadway.”
Subsequently, Mr. Paletta sued the Oakland County Road Commission, alleging the commission created the dangerous loose-gravel hazard “by improperly scraping the gravel shoulders and failing to sweep the gravel debris from the roadway in accordance with industry standards.”
The commission responded by asking a trial judge to dismiss the lawsuit. The commission insisted it was immune from liability because the commission did not have notice. In other words, it did not know of the alleged loose gravel and the alleged loose gravel was not actually a defect in the road.
The ‘we didn’t know’ Excuse in motorcycle accident lawsuits
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the lawyers raise an “I didn’t know” excuse in a motorcycle accident case. It happens quite often. And the reason why the three appellate judges rejected the Oakland County Road Commission’s lack of notice excuse is illuminating for other motorcycle accident lawyers for two reasons.
1. The evidence showed that the commission’s own employees created the loose-gravel hazard and, under Michigan law, the commission is presumed to have known of the hazard’s existence.
2. A good Samaritan, who lived along the road where Mr. Paletta’s crash occurred, repeatedly told the commission on the phone and in person that the loose-gravel hazard existed and that it was dangerous. He also told the commission that the hazard caused at least one other crash – which resulted in the loss of a rider’s legs.
The judges said that information was enough to put the commission on notice “that the gravel routinely left at the intersection rendered the highway not reasonably safe and convenient for public travel.”
The judges required even less time to dispense with this claim from the commission.
Rather than requiring that “the defect must be to the actual roadbed,” “the law has long recognized the potential liability of governmental agencies for obstructions on a … roadway,” said the judges.
A welcome ruling on behalf of Michigan motorcycle accident victims – instructive for lawyers
The Court of Appeals ruling in Paletta is heartening for lawyers who handle motorcycle injury cases and who see lack of notice defenses.
First, it should go to a jury. The facts square with good common sense and good judgment of reasonable people. It hopefully will help make our roads and road beds much safer, now that road commissions know negligently maintained roads will create liability. And, as a motorcycle lawyer, it is a refreshing — albeit too infrequent — display of an alleged wrongdoer being denied the shelter of loopholes and legal technicalities in today’s politicized courts.
In turn, the Paletta ruling allows the legal system to work as it was intended: both sides have their day in court and an Oakland County jury can decide on right and wrong as the conscience of our community.
– Steven M. Gursten is a motorcycle lawyer and partner of Michigan Auto Law. He received the highest motorcycle accident settlement in Michigan last year, according to Michigan Lawyers Weekly. Steve has spoken at trial seminars on motorcycle lawsuits, and is available for comment on Michigan’s motorcycle helmet laws.
– Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, by bitmask
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