Government could be liable for deaths caused by lack of highway median

Under certain circumstances, a government agency may be granted immunity from personal injury or wrongful death suits. However, this does not mean that the government is always immune to suit.

For example, under New Mexico law, even the Department of Transportation may be liable for a defect in a roadway, as shown by the New Mexico Supreme Court case of Martinez v. New Mexico Department of Transportation.

A tragic cross-lane accident

The victims in this case, a man and a pregnant woman, were traveling toward Los Alamos on New Mexico State Road 502, a winding mountainous roadway, when a driver weaving in and out of traffic lost control of his vehicle in the center turn lane. The driver skidded head-on into the victims' vehicle, killing them both.

The victims' families brought suit against the Department of Transportation for failing to construct a center barrier on that section of the roadway. Other cross-median, fatal collisions had occurred in the area, and five other motorists had died as a result.

The trial court and Court of Appeals found for the government, holding that the medians related to road design, for which the government had immunity. The families of the victims appealed.

A roadway design . . . or maintenance flaw?

The New Mexico Supreme Court explained that the government's immunity from such claims was limited by certain exceptions. The key question was whether the decision of the government not to erect center barriers, after being on notice of the dangerous condition, was a matter of design, from which the government would be protected from suit, or a matter of maintenance.

The court held that the duty to maintain a roadway includes the duty to fix a known, dangerous condition, regardless of whether the source of the danger could be related to an earlier design feature of the roadway. Otherwise, the government would have perpetual immunity based on a design, even if a particular stretch of highway caused fatalities on a regular basis. The government could not approve a design, and then, ostrich-like, hide its head in the blueprints, ignoring the impact on the operation of the roadway.

Thus, the decision against the victims' families in this car accident case was reversed and a new trial was granted. The families of the victims would have another day in court to make their case.

Holding the negligent accountable

If you have suffered the loss of a loved one due to the negligence of another party, you may be entitled to damages for the emotional and financial injuries you have suffered. Although no lawsuit can make up for your tragedy, you should seek an experienced personal injury attorney who will work to hold the negligent party accountable for their actions.