JTL Grp. v. Gray-Dockham, S-21-0203

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
Writing for the CourtFENN, Justice.
Citation2022 WY 67
PartiesJTL GROUP, INC., d/b/a KNIFE RIVER, a Wyoming corporation and ROADWORX INDUSTRIES, LLC, a Wyoming limited liability company, Appellants (Defendants), v. TANGNEY GRAY-DOCKHAM, as Wrongful Death Representative of William C. Gray, Jr., Appellee (Plaintiff).
Docket NumberS-21-0203
Decision Date07 June 2022

2022 WY 67

JTL GROUP, INC., d/b/a KNIFE RIVER, a Wyoming corporation and ROADWORX INDUSTRIES, LLC, a Wyoming limited liability company, Appellants (Defendants),
v.

TANGNEY GRAY-DOCKHAM, as Wrongful Death Representative of William C. Gray, Jr., Appellee (Plaintiff).

No. S-21-0203

Supreme Court of Wyoming

June 7, 2022


Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County The Honorable Kerri M. Johnson, Judge.

Representing Appellants:

Kendra N. Beckwith, Mark B. Collier of Messner Reeves LLP, and Tyler J. Garrett of Hathaway & Kunz LLP. Argument by Ms. Beckwith and Mr. Garrett.

Representing Appellee:

R. Todd Ingram and Grant Harvey Lawson of Metier Law Firm, LLC. Argument by Mr. Ingram.

Before FOX, C.J., and KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, GRAY, and FENN, JJ.

FENN, Justice.

Tangney Gray-Dockham, wrongful death representative for William C. Gray, Jr., brought a negligence claim against JTL Group, Inc., doing business as Knife River ("Knife River") and RoadWorx Industries, LLC ("RoadWorx") (collectively referred to as "Appellants"), for the wrongful death of Mr. Gray following a motorcycle-vehicle collision in a construction work zone. Ms. Gray-Dockham alleged Appellants caused the accident by their negligent placement of the temporary traffic control devices in the work zone.

[¶1] At the close of Ms. Gray-Dockham's case, Appellants moved for judgment as a matter of law contending any claim of direct negligence against Knife River was barred because it admitted vicarious liability on behalf of RoadWorx. Appellants also argued the evidence was insufficient to establish the temporary traffic control caused the accident. The district court denied the motion, and the jury returned a verdict against Appellants. Appellants renewed their motion for judgment as a matter of law and requested a new trial. The district court denied the motion. We affirm.

ISSUES[1]

[¶2] Appellants present two issues on appeal, which we rephrase as follows:

I. Did the district court err when it denied Appellants' renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law?

II. Was there sufficient evidence to support the temporary traffic control proximately caused the traffic accident?

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FACTS

[¶3] In December 2016, the Wyoming Department of Transportation ("WYDOT) awarded Knife River a construction bid for a pavement surfacing project in Casper, Wyoming. Knife River entered into a contract with the Wyoming Transportation Commission[2] to be the general contractor on the project. The project required pavement rehabilitation on approximately 4.06 miles of road on Yellowstone Highway. Pavement activities began at the bridge located off the exit at Interstate 25 and Yellowstone Highway and continued to the east past Hat Six Road. At the intersection of Hat Six and Cole Creek Road, WYDOT requested Knife River to narrow the lanes from a divided four lane highway into a five-lane section. Additionally, WYDOT requested a traffic signal be placed at that same intersection.

[¶4] The contract assigned Knife River with the responsibility to set up temporary traffic control in the work zone. Knife River in turn entered into a subcontract with RoadWorx. Under the subcontract, RoadWorx was to "furnish all supervision, labor, tools, equipment, materials and supplies necessary to perform . . . flagging [and] temporary traffic control." Traffic control is a mechanism used to protect the public, work force and equipment by guiding and directing the public safely through a construction project. Changes in a roadway during construction make it imperative to provide motorists with clear guidance on how to safely navigate the work zone by using appropriate traffic control devices to warn, guide or channelize motorists or road users.

[¶5] All WYDOT construction projects require a traffic control supervisor onsite. A traffic control supervisor is the individual "responsible for designing all of the necessary traffic control for the construction operations on a day-to-day basis, depending on what the prime contractor and maybe other subcontractors' needs are." Additionally, a traffic control supervisor is responsible for setting up the traffic control devices and monitoring the function once in place. To qualify as a traffic control supervisor, an individual must become certified through WYDOT's certification process. On this project, an employee of RoadWorx, Consuela Garcia, was certified and contracted to serve as the traffic control supervisor. While not required by Knife River or WYDOT, Knife River's project superintendent, Dennis Hallford was also certified by WYDOT as a traffic control supervisor.

[¶6] Although Knife River subcontracted with RoadWorx to perform all traffic control, it elected to have WYDOT direct all communications with respect to traffic control to its employee and project superintendent, Mr. Hallford. Knife River directed WYDOT to communicate any issues to Mr. Hallford and not to the subcontractors. Indeed, if WYDOT relayed any issues to Mr. Hallford, he was required under the contract to act as the

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middleman and relay any such matters to RoadWorx. Furthermore, Mr. Hallford was "to be the focal point for all safety matters" and to oversee the traffic control implemented by RoadWorx. Both Knife River and RoadWorx were required to set up traffic control in strict conformity with the contract and WYDOT's project plans.

[¶7] On the morning of September 12, 2017, Jack Stone, a resident engineer with WYDOT, inspected the traffic control on the project. The day before, without direction from Knife River, RoadWorx removed the traffic control devices from the eastbound lane on Yellowstone Highway. After observing there was no traffic control in the eastbound lane, Mr. Stone drove to the WYDOT office to retrieve WYDOT's district traffic engineer, Mark Williams. Mr. Williams and Mr. Stone drove through the project and identified several deficiencies in the traffic control layout.

[¶8] After identifying the deficiencies, Mr. Stone completed a project mobility review to inform Knife River the traffic control needed to be addressed. On the project mobility review, Mr. Stone noted: (1) the lane closures were unacceptable; (2) there were unnecessary or confusing signs; and (3) the overall rating of traffic control was unacceptable. Additionally, Mr. Stone listed the following deficiencies:

Left turn lanes at the paved median locations need to be added. Specifically, there is no [eastbound] left turn lane at Curtis or Hat Six. The [westbound] left turn lane at Hat Six is not properly delineated. Need [eastbound] lane closure where 2 lanes become one at Hat Six. Remove the 30 mph speed limit signs in the 5 lane section and uncover the existing 40 mph speed limit signs in both directions of travel

[¶9] After Mr. Stone completed the project mobility review, he met with Mr. Hallford to discuss the traffic control deficiencies. Mr. Stone informed Mr. Hallford the eastbound and westbound left turn lanes at the Hat Six and Cole Creek intersection needed to be corrected. He requested traffic control at the intersection be set up similar to the setup during the solar eclipse on August 21-23, 2017. He further requested Mr. Hallford to first correct the deficiencies at the intersection because that location had the majority of traffic control problems.

[¶10] Mr. Hallford met with Ms. Garcia and informed her of what needed to be corrected with the traffic control. Ms. Garcia and her crew physically moved the traffic control devices in accordance with Mr. Hallford's instructions. Mr. Hallford never physically moved the traffic control devices, but he directly relayed WYDOT's instructions to RoadWorx about what needed to be corrected.

[¶11] After her crew made the requested changes, Ms. Garcia informed Mr. Hallford the traffic control was corrected. Mr. Hallford and Ms. Garcia traveled to each location and

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verified the corrections were made. Mr. Hallford inspected the traffic control at the intersection and approved the setup. Mr. Hallford signed the project mobility review to indicate the deficiencies were corrected by 11:00 a.m. He further sent the signed project mobility review to Knife River's office to ensure Knife River and WYDOT knew he inspected the repairs and the changes were made.

[¶12] On this same day, September 12, 2017, at approximately 6:00 p.m., Lana Simmons was driving home with her three children. Ms. Simmons was traveling eastbound on Yellowstone Highway and merged into the farthest left lane to prepare to turn left at the intersection onto Cole Creek from Yellowstone Highway. To make a left turn, Ms. Simmons came to almost a complete stop at the end of the last traffic control device, a barrel with a left turn sign. Before beginning her turn, she noticed a white car directly in front of her vehicle in the same lane making a left turn in the opposite direction from the westbound lane on Yellowstone Highway. She thought the white car had the right-of-way, so she waited until that car turned through the intersection before proceeding to turn. Ms. Simmons turned left into the intersection from the end of the traffic control barrels. When she began to turn, she realized she was turning into the wrong lane of travel on Cole Creek. Consequently, Ms. Simmons made a subtle correction that she identified as an "s" or "zig-zag" maneuver to adjust her vehicle's travel to turn into the correct lane.

[¶13] At this point, Ms. Simmons heard a loud noise, the air bags went off, and her vehicle came to a complete stop. Ms. Simmons collided head-on with William Gray, Jr., who was traveling westbound on Yellowstone Highway. The posted speed limit at the time of the accident was 40 miles per hour. Mr. Gray was traveling approximately 37 to 42 miles per hour on a motorcycle, and Ms. Simmons was traveling approximately 12 to 20 miles per hour in a Buick four-door-passenger vehicle.

[¶14]...

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