When an Outdated Design Finally Needs to be Put to Bed:
The Government’s “State of the Art” Defense in Road Design Cases
III. The “State of the Art” Defense
B. Court of Appeals decisions
While the Supreme Court has not had the opportunity to fully address the “state of the art” defense, the Court of Appeals has more thoroughly taken on the issue. The Western District Court of Appeals touched on the “state of the art” defense in Martin v. Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission.20 In Martin, plaintiff Marelne Martin sued MHTC for the wrongful death of her daughter, Chritiana Kelly.21 Kelly crashed her car into a tree while driving home from a Lee’s Summit to Blue Springs.22 As Kelly exited from Highway 291 onto Highway 70, she lost control of her car, slid down a slope, and hit a tree planted 24 1/2 feet off of the highway.23 A branch from the tree fell onto Kelly’s car and killed her.24 Martin sued MHTC arguing MHTC was responsible for the design, condition, maintenance, and repair of the ramp; and MHTC breached its duty by placing trees too close to the highway, allowing trees to remain too close to the highway, failing to warn motorist of existing trees, and failing to erect guardrails or other barriers to protect against trees. The case was tried before a jury, which entered a verdict in favor of Martin and assessed MHTC with 50 percent of the fault.
After trial, MHTC filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict.25The trial court granted the motion ruling that Martin failed to offer evidence of a defect in the traveled portion of the road and that MHTC owed no duty to motorist leaving the traveled portion of the highway.26 On appeal, MHTC argued the trial court correctly granted the Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict because it was entitled to use the “state of the art” defense.27 MHTC pointed out that planting the tree at 24 1/2 feet from the ramp fell within the 1954 and 1965 standards setout by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).28 The ramp where the accident occurred was designed in the early 1960s and construction started in 1964.29 The ramp was opened between 1965 and 1966.30
Looking only at the language of the statute, the “state of the art” defense would have seemed to apply since the suit was for the design of a highway constructed prior to 1977. However, the Western District found that MHTC could not use the “state of the art” defense.31 The Court explained that Martin’s suit “was not based on the original design of the ramp.”32Subsequent to planting the tree at the ramp, MHTC adopted a clear zone policy requiring “the removal of trees in extremely hazardous locations.” 33The clear zone policy covered the tree that killed Martin’s daughter.34Because the new policy encompassed the tree, the Western District held that MHTC had abandoned the “state of the art” defense.35 Martin illustrates that MHTC can abandon the “state of the art” defense by adopting policies or taking actions which alter the original design.
This principle is illustrated further in Linton v. Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission.36 In Linton, Sandra Hertlein, Ted Linton and Bobbie Case were killed after their vehicle crashed into the concrete railing of an overpass.37 Heirtlein, the driver, attempted to exit from I-70 onto Union Boulevard in St. Louis.38 The exit was on the left side of the highway and ran next to reversible lanes, which ran in between normal lanes. At the end of the exit there were three flashing red lights. 39 Herlien ran all three red lights and crashed into a barrier.40 The survivors of the victims filed suit against MHTC for negligent design and failure to warn.41 The case went to trial and the jury rendered a verdict for the plaintiffs.42
The Eastern District Court of Appeals agreed that the ramp was a dangerous condition based on its design.43 The Court noted that the signs on the highway were inadequate because they failed to follow the standards set out by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.44 The signs did comply with the 1971 standards when the exit was built in 1976, but it did not comply with the 1988 standards.45 One of the plaintiffs’ experts testified that sign changes were normally made relatively quickly since they are inexpensive.46 There was also testimony at trial which discussed the overall danger of left hand exists.47
MHTC tried to use the “state of the art” defense but the court agreed that it was not available.48 The court stated “the ramp was resigned and resurfaced in 1984, after the statutory cutoff in 1977.”49 Due to these modifications, the court rejected use of “state of the art” defense.50 Lintonshows that courts are reluctant to let MHTC use the “state of the art” defense if it has modified a any roadway subsequent to 1977.
20 981 S.W.2d 577 (Mo. App. W.D. 1998).
21 Martin, 981 S.W.2d at 579.
26 Id. at 584-85.
27 Id at 585.
36 Linton v. MHTC, 980 S.W.2d 4 (Mo. App. E.D. 1998).
37 Id. at 6.
48 Id. at 10.
49 Id. at 10.
50 Linton, 980 S.W.2d at 10.
A. Supreme Court Decisions
IV. Strategies for Addressing the “State of the Art” Defense
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