Aguehounde v. District of Columbia, 93-CV-1116

Citation666 A.2d 443
Case DateSeptember 25, 1995
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

666 A.2d 443

Georges AGUEHOUNDE, et al., Appellant,

Erica DAVIS, Appellee.

Nos. 93-CV-1116, 93-CV-1213.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Argued February 27, 1995.

Decided September 25, 1995.

666 A.2d 444

Patrick A. Malone, with whom Jacob A. Stein, Washington, DC, was on the brief, for appellant Aguehounde.

Thomas H. Tallbot for appellee Davis.

Donna Murasky, Assistant Corporation Counsel, with whom Vanessa Ruiz, Acting Corporation Counsel at the time brief was filed, and Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corporation Counsel, Washington, DC, were on the brief for appellee District of Columbia.

Before STEADMAN, SCHWELB, and KING, Associate Judges.

Opinion for the court by Associate Judge KING.

Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge SCHWELB at p. 454.

KING, Associate Judge:

This appeal presents the question whether the setting of the timing of a traffic light by a municipal employee is a discretionary act which would make the municipality immune from liability for injuries proximately caused by the interval set. We hold, under the circumstances presented here, that such an act is discretionary, thereby conferring immunity from liability on the District.

In this negligence action against the District for injuries resulting from an automobile striking a pedestrian in a crosswalk, the pedestrian, appellant Georges Aguehounde ("Aguehounde"), seeks reversal of the trial court's judgment in favor of the District of Columbia ("District") and reinstatement of the jury's verdict in his favor. Aguehounde contends the trial court erred in granting the District's motion for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the District was immune from tort liability for the discretionary act of setting the timing of traffic light intervals. Aguehounde also maintains that the trial court erred in ruling that he was contributorily negligent as a matter of law for failing to look in the direction of the vehicle which struck him before he stepped into the crosswalk. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the trial court's grant of the District's motion for judgment as a matter of law.


At approximately 5:00 p.m. on April 23, 1990, Aguehounde was struck by a car driven by Erica Davis ("Davis") after he stepped into the crosswalk on Fessenden Street as he walked north on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue (which runs in a north-north-west/south-southeast direction) in northwest Washington, D.C. The Davis vehicle, which was proceeding east on Fessenden St., (which runs in an east/west direction) struck Aguehounde in the crosswalk on the east side of Wisconsin Ave. Aguehounde testified that as he approached the Fessenden St./Wisconsin Ave. intersection, and when he was three or four steps from the southeast corner of that intersection, he looked to his left and did not see any vehicles approaching from the west on Fessenden Street. He further testified that when he reached the corner he saw that the light facing him was green and that cars, pointed in a westerly direction, were stopped to his right on Fessenden Street. He could not recall whether the "walk" or "don't walk" sign was on. Aguehounde acknowledged that he did not stop at the corner before stepping into the crosswalk. He also stated that he did not remember looking to his left or seeing Davis's car approach him from that direction as he stepped into the intersection.

Davis, the driver of the car which struck Aguehounde, testified that the light facing her turned from red to green when she was approximately one block from the Wisconsin Ave. intersection. She further testified that the traffic light was still green and she was traveling approximately 20 miles per hour as she proceeded through the intersection in her easterly course on Fessenden St. She first noticed Aguehounde standing on the curb as she passed through the intersection into the crosswalk. Aguehounde then took a big step out in front of her car while it was in the crosswalk. Davis testified that Aguehounde

666 A.2d 445
was looking away from her car and she never saw him look in her direction. She applied her brakes, but nonetheless struck Aguehounde who landed 3-5 feet in front of her car

As a result of the injuries sustained in the collision, Aguehounde and his wife brought this negligence action against the District,1 alleging that: the District failed to follow the proper engineering standards in setting the length of the "clearance interval" at the intersection; this failure caused the District to set a clearance interval of too short a duration to allow cars to clear the intersection and the crosswalks; and consequently, Davis's car was still in the intersection when Aguehounde stepped into the crosswalk on a green light.2

A jury trial was conducted in May, 1993 before Judge Burgess. The District's motion for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that it was immune from suit because the setting of the clearance interval was a discretionary act, was denied. The jury found that the District's setting of the timing of the clearance interval was the proximate cause of Aguehounde's paralyzing injuries, and awarded him $7,318,313.20 in damages, and his wife $602,913 on her claim for loss of consortium. In addition, the jury rejected the District's contention that Aguehounde had been contributorily negligent.

Thereafter, the District moved for judgment as a matter of law on the grounds that the timing of the light is a discretionary function immune from tort liability, and that Aguehounde was contributorily negligent as a matter of law. In a fifty-five page Memorandum and Order, Judge Burgess granted the District's motion, concluding that the District was immune from liability because the decision to set the length of the clearance interval involved policy considerations, and because the District had not adopted a specific directive taking away the traffic engineer's discretion in establishing timing intervals. The trial court also ruled that Aguehounde was contributory negligent as a matter of law in entering the intersection without taking reasonable steps to ensure his own safety.

On appeal, in No. 93-CV-1116, Aguehounde contends the trial court erred in granting the District's Motion for judgment as a matter of law, alleging that: (1) setting the clearance interval is a ministerial act, devoid of policy considerations; (2) the District removed any discretion in the timing by adopting the national traffic formula; (3) the trial court's factual finding on the immunity issue violated the Seventh Amendment;3

666 A.2d 446
and (4) Aguehounde was not contributorily negligent as a matter of law for entering the crosswalk.4


Before turning to the merits, a brief discussion of practices relating to the timing of traffic lights will be helpful to understanding the issue presented. The clearance interval of a traffic light is the amount of time allocated to the yellow light which occurs between the green light for one street and the green light for the cross street at an intersection. At some intersections an "all-red" sequence is added, meaning there is a red light in each direction at the same time for the duration of that sequence, which is ordinarily no more than one or two seconds. The purpose of the clearance interval is: (1) to allow a driver sufficient time to either come to a complete stop before entering the intersection or to clear the intersection before the crossing light turns green; and (2) to keep opposing traffic and pedestrians from entering the intersection until the vehicles headed in the opposite direction have passed through the intersection.

It is undisputed that in 1985 the clearance interval at the Wisconsin Ave./Fessenden St. intersection for traffic coming from Davis's direction was 4.5 seconds, meaning the light facing traffic on Fessenden St. would turn from green to yellow for 4.5 seconds before the light facing traffic on Wisconsin Ave. would turn to green. In October 1989, the interval was changed to 4.0 seconds.

The principal formula used by the District in setting the timing of traffic light intervals is contained in the chart "Required Yellow Interval In Seconds," which provides:

Y = T + ½ V + (W + L) - ------- A V

The factor "Y" is the clearance interval expressed in seconds. "T" represents the "perception reaction time," which is the time it takes a driver to perceive the yellow light and react to it by moving his foot from the accelerator to the brake, and for braking to begin. The "accepted figure" for "T" is one second. The second part of the formula (½ "V" divided by "A") calculates the "accepted deceleration rate for a controlled stop" with "V" being the velocity of the vehicle, expressed in feet per second, and "A" representing the deceleration rate of a vehicle, expressed in feet per second per second. The speed limit at the intersection was 25 mph or 36.7 feet per second. Typical "A" values vary from 10, for a "fairly fast stop," to 15 for a "more conservative, comfortable stop." The third part of the formula computes the time it would take a car to clear the intersection. This is done by adding the width of the intersection ("W") to the length of the car ("L") and dividing by the velocity at which the car is traveling in feet per second ("V"). In general, 12 feet is used as the "L" for automobiles, and a larger number is used for longer vehicles such as trucks. In applying this formula, the greater the speed, the shorter the clearance interval and vice versa.

A six-second clearance interval5 involving four seconds of yellow and two of all-red, which Aguehounde contends should have been set for the intersection, would have allowed vehicles to clear the intersection and the crosswalks before the green light for opposing traffic and pedestrians would permit entry to the intersection, thus maximizing pedestrian safety. A four or 4.5 second clearance interval,...

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