Holt v. N.C. Dep't of Transp.

Decision Date02 February 2016
Docket NumberNo. COA15–445.,COA15–445.
Citation781 S.E.2d 697,245 N.C.App. 167
Parties Daniel and Lisa HOLT, Administrators of the Estate of Hunter Daniel Holt; Steven Grier Price, Individually; Steven Grier Price, Administrator of the Estate of McAllister Grier Furr Price; Steven Grier Price, Administrator of the Estate of Cynthia Jean Furr, Plaintiffs, v. NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Defendant.
CourtNorth Carolina Court of Appeals

DeVore Acton & Stafford, PA, Charlotte, by Fred W. DeVore, III, F. William DeVore IV and Derek P. Adler ; and Rawls Scheer Foster & Mingo PLLC, Charlotte, by Amanda A. Mingo, for PlaintiffsAppellees.

Attorney General, Roy Cooper, by Special Deputy Attorney General, Melody R. Hairston and Special Deputy Attorney General, Amar Majmundar, for DefendantAppellant.

McGEE, Chief Judge.

Cynthia Jean Furr ("Furr") was driving her two-year-old daughter McAllister Grier Furr Price ("McAllister") in her automobile ("the Furr car") in the early evening of 4 April 2009. Furr was driving the approximately one-half mile from her home to her church, where she was the musical director. As Furr attempted to make a left-hand turn from her street, Riverpointe Drive, onto Highway 49 in the direction of downtown Charlotte, the Furr car was broadsided by a Mitsubishi ("the Stasko car") driven by twenty-year-old Tyler Stephen Stasko ("Stasko"). Eleven-year-old Rex Evan Thomas ("Rex") and thirteen-year-old Hunter Daniel Holt ("Hunter") were passengers in the Stasko car at the time of the collision. Furr, McAllister, and Hunter died as a result of injuries sustained in the collision. This collision occurred in a four-way intersection ("the intersection") where Riverpointe Drive and Palisades Parkway intersected with Highway 49.

According to the findings of fact of the Full Commission of the North Carolina Industrial Commission ("Industrial Commission"), before the collision, Stasko was driving Rex and Hunter home from a day trip to Carowinds amusement park. The Stasko car was heading in a westerly direction on Highway 49, away from Charlotte and towards Lake Wylie and South Carolina. While Stasko was stopped for the traffic signal at the intersection of Shopton Road, Rex and Hunter noticed two female friends in an adjacent vehicle driven by Carlene Atkinson ("Atkinson"). The kids "began gesturing and joking with each other." "When the light at Shopton Road turned green, Mr. Stasko and Ms. Atkinson sped off at a high rate of speed in the direction of the Palisades/Riverpointe intersection." Stasko and Atkinson were apparently engaging in a race. The traffic signal at Shopton Road was the last traffic signal or sign Stasko would encounter before the collision. There was no traffic signal or sign regulating traffic on Highway 49 at the intersection. There was a stop sign on Riverpointe Drive, requiring drivers to stop before entering or crossing Highway 49.

After coming to the stop sign on Riverpointe Drive, Cynthia Furr crossed Hwy 49 in order to make a left turn and proceed east on Hwy 49. She slowed prior to concluding the left turn in order to allow eastbound traffic on Hwy 49 to clear. At the Riverpointe Drive intersection, Mr. Stasko's vehicle, which was traveling in the left through lane, collided with the left side of Ms. Furr's vehicle at an estimated speed of 86 miles per hour.

Atkinson, who was "some distance behind" the Stasko car when it impacted the Furr car, stopped briefly at the scene of the accident, and then "left the accident scene without offering assistance or waiting for law enforcement personnel to arrive."

Beginning in 2000, the area around the intersection underwent significant changes. Prior to 2000, Highway 49, in the vicinity of Riverpointe Drive, was a two-lane highway with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour. Riverpointe Drive terminated at its intersection with Highway 49, and there was no roadway continuing on the opposite side of Highway 49 from Riverpointe Drive. By late 2005, Highway 49 had been widened to a four-lane highway, and the speed limit had been increased to 55 miles per hour. Defendant North Carolina Department of Transportation ("DOT") was responsible for this project ("the DOT project"). In addition, a four-way intersection had been created by the addition of Palisades Parkway across Highway 49 from the terminus of Riverpointe Drive. Palisades Parkway was constructed by Crescent Resources, LLC ("Crescent") as a means of connecting its new housing development to Highway 49. Pursuant to an agreement with DOT, Crescent was permitted to construct Palisades Parkway and add designated turn lanes on Highway 49, which included two dedicated turn lanes for the west-bound lanes and one dedicated turn lane for the east-bound lanes. Subsequent to these projects, a person making a left-hand turn from Riverpointe Drive onto Highway 49 East had to drive over or by the following: one dedicated turn lane for west-bound traffic turning right onto Riverpointe Drive; two west-bound lanes of traffic; two dedicated turn lanes for west-bound traffic to turn left onto Palisades Parkway; one dedicated lane for eastbound traffic to turn left onto Riverpointe Drive; and two east-bound lanes of traffic. There was also a dedicated turn lane for east-bound traffic to turn right onto Palisades Parkway. In addition to being aware of east and west-bound traffic on Highway 49, a driver would have to be aware of traffic from Palisades Parkway attempting to either turn onto east or west-bound Highway 49, or attempting to cross Highway 49 to access Riverpointe Drive.

The plan for the intersection included installation of traffic signals, which were to be funded by Crescent and installed by DOT. At the time of the 4 April 2009 collision no signals had been installed, even though one of DOT's district engineers had warned Crescent in 2006 that a signal was needed "at [that] time."

This action was brought in the Industrial Commission pursuant to the Tort Claims Act by Steven Grier Price, as the administrator of the estates of Furr and McAllister; and Daniel and Lisa Holt, as the administrators of Hunter's estate (together, "Plaintiffs"). Plaintiffs alleged that DOT negligently failed to install traffic signals at the intersection, and that this negligence was a proximate cause of the collision that killed Furr, McAllister, and Hunter.

The following relevant stipulations were entered by Plaintiffs and DOT:

3. This case arises out of a fatal automobile crash on 4 April 2009, at the intersection of Highway 49 and Riverpointe Drive. A car driven by Tyler Stasko collided with a vehicle driven by Cynthia Jean Furr. Highway 49 is a state maintained highway. Prior to the accident, Highway 49 had been widened and a fourth leg (Palisades Parkway) had been added to the intersection. The claimants contend that a proximate cause of the accident was the failure of [DOT] to install a traffic signal at the intersection. [DOT] stipulates that it had a duty to install a signal and that it breached that duty; however, [DOT] contends that said breach was not a proximate cause of the collision. Rather, [DOT] contends that the acts of others, including the intervening and superseding criminal acts of Mr. Stasko and Ms. Atkinson, were the proximate cause of the collision. Cynthia Jean Furr and her daughter, McAllister Grier Furr Price, were killed in the car driven by Ms. Furr. Hunter Daniel Holt was killed as a passenger in the vehicle driven by Tyler Stasko.
4. At all times relevant to this action, Highway 49 was a road constructed and maintained by [DOT].
5. Originally, Highway 49 was a two lane road, but beginning in the early 2000's, [DOT] undertook a construction project to widen and improve Highway 49.
6. During the project, Crescent Resources sought to construct a road opposite Riverpointe Drive, called Palisades Parkway. This road was intended to service a new subdivision known as The Palisades.
7. As a part of a conditional zoning agreement with the Mecklenburg County Planning Commission, Crescent agreed to fund a traffic signal at the Highway 49/Palisades Parkway/Riverpointe Drive intersection. Although Palisades Parkway was connected to Highway 49 prior to the subject accident, Crescent did not pay those funds at any time prior to the crash in 2009.
8. A traffic signal was not installed prior to the crash of 4 April 2009.

Because of DOT's stipulation that it had a duty to install a traffic signal at the intersection, and that it breached that duty, the sole issue before the Industrial Commission was whether DOT's breach of its duty was a proximate cause of the collision and resulting deaths. A deputy commissioner entered a decision and order on 14 February 2014. Because the deputy commissioner found that DOT could not have foreseen Stasko's criminal acts, the deputy commissioner concluded that the failure to erect a traffic signal was not a proximate cause of the deaths. Plaintiffs appealed to the Full Commission.

The Full Commission reversed the decision of the deputy commissioner, concluding:

[DOT's] breach of its duty to install a traffic signal at the ... intersection was a proximate cause of the accident that resulted in the deaths of Cynthia Furr, McAllister Furr Price and Hunter Holt. The Commission concludes that the intervening negligence of Mr. Stasko and Ms. Atkinson was also a proximate cause of the accident, but not the sole proximate cause. As such, [DOT] is not insulated from liability for its negligence.

In support of this conclusion, the Full Commission found the following relevant facts:

5. The compass orientation of curving Hwy 49 is such that the road travels east to west, with the easterly direction headed toward Charlotte and the westerly direction headed towards the Buster Boyd Bridge and South Carolina. There is a hill to the left of the intersection of Hwy 49 and Riverpointe Drive that limits visibility of the intersection and drivers on Hwy 49.
6. The subject intersection was significantly altered during [DOT's]

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