LeBlanc v. State

Decision Date07 September 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-C-3239,81-C-3239
Citation419 So.2d 853
PartiesAlma LeBLANC v. STATE of Louisiana and the Louisiana Department of Highways.
CourtLouisiana Supreme Court

Larry A. Roach, Lake Charles, for applicant.

Marshall W. Wroten, Robert J. Jones, David K. Balfour, John W. King, Baton Rouge, for respondent.

DENNIS, Justice.

In this case we consider whether the plaintiff motorist's inattention in allowing her vehicle to stray from the roadway onto a dangerously low shoulder followed instinctively by her immediate swerve back onto the elevated road surface precludes her recovery from the Department of Highways for injuries sustained in a resulting accident. The trial court found that the four to six inch dropoff between the roadway and the shoulder was the principal cause of the accident and held for the plaintiff motorist. The appeals court reversed, however, on the ground that the plaintiff's failure to stabilize her vehicle after its two right wheels dropped to the shoulder constituted deficient conduct and thus barred her recovery. We reverse. The Department's duty to maintain highway shoulders is imposed to protect a motorist from the risk of injury produced by a combination of the motorist's inadvertent encounter with an unexpected, sharp dropoff from the roadway and her consequent instinctive oversteering of her vehicle.

The plaintiff, Alma LeBlanc, a sixty-one year old widow, was returning from a fishing trip in Cameron Parish with her pet Chihuahua at the time of the accident. As a result of her injuries, she is paralyzed from the waist down, suffers constant pain, and must be cared for continually by her daughter. The trial court awarded her $638,000 for her medical expenses, care and therapy, pain and suffering.

The uncontroverted facts as recited by the trial judge are as follows:

"The accident occurred on La. Highway 27 during daylight hours between mile post markers 18 and 19. Alma LeBlanc, plaintiff, was traveling northward on La. Highway 26 and reached a point in the road where a curve began in which the road changed from a northeasterly direction to a northerly direction. This resulted in a left turning curve to a north traveling driver. The curve was rounded and the angle was not remarkably acute.

"La. Highway 27 in this stretch was a two-lane highway with asphalt surface and narrow shoulders covered with loose clam shell. On the outside of the curve (east shoulder) the roadway was some four to six inches higher than the shoulder.

"On entering the curve, plaintiff accidentally drove her automobile off the roadway onto the shoulder. She experienced the sensation of the dropoff. She testified that she pulled back onto the highway and lost control. The physical evidence of tire marks suggest(s) that she may have lost control while still on the shoulder. Nevertheless, upon regaining the surface of the highway, plaintiff could no longer control her automobile and turned sideways in the road where she was struck broadside by an automobile in the south-bound lane. Plaintiff's vehicle then entered a canal on the west side of the road."

Regarding the crucial moment before the accident the plaintiff testified: " * * * I seen cars coming approaching me, so I stayed to my side; made sure I was over to my side, and then the next thing I knew there was a drop-off. I had stepped off of the ... dropped off of the highway, and I pulled ... quick--pulled back up onto the highway, and I lost control, and that's all I ever remembered." The other evidence of record corroborates and does not conflict with this testimony.

On defendant's appeal, the appeals court affirmed the finding of the trial court that the Department had been negligent in allowing the dangerous shoulder condition to exist but reversed its decision as to the plaintiff's claim against the Department. See 405 So.2d 635. The court of appeal held that the plaintiff had been contributorily negligent and was barred from recovery because of her attempt to remount the roadway, instead of gradually slowing her vehicle, and then maneuvering it safely back onto the paved surface. The appellate opinion indicates that the court thought this result was somehow required by our decisions in Sinitiere v. Lavergne, 391 So.2d 821 (La.1980) and Rue v. State, Department of Highways, 372 So.2d 1197 (La.1979).

The court of appeal, seeking to extract rules of precedent from our previous opinions instead of evaluating the relationship between the department's duty and the particular risk involved here, fell into error because of a faulty approach. In Rue v. State Department of Highways, this court held that the Department's duty to maintain safe highway shoulders imposed an obligation to protect a motorist who inadvertently drove onto the shoulder from the risk of striking an unexpected deep rut caused by negligent maintenance. Id 1198 n. 2, 1199. But all rules of conduct are designed to protect some persons under some circumstances against some risks. Seldom does a rule protect every victim against every risk that may befall him, merely because it shows that the violation of the rule played a part in producing the injury. The task of defining the proper reach or thrust of a rule in its policy aspects is one that must be undertaken by the court in each case as it arises. Hill v. Lundin, 260 La. 542, 256 So.2d 620 (1972) (quoting Malone, Ruminations on Cause-In-Fact, 9 Stanford L.Rev. 60, 73 (1956). Accordingly, in a later case presenting the question of whether a different type of risk was protected against by the same legal duty, this court reexamined the Department's obligation to maintain highway shoulders and held that the duty is not imposed to protect a motorist against a shoulder defect of which he has full knowledge and a reasonable opportunity to avoid. * Sinitiere v. Lavergne, supra.

In the present case the particular risk which gave rise to plaintiff's injuries was unlike those from which harm resulted in the previous cases. As opposed to the motorist in Rue, Mrs. LeBlanc's accident resulted not only from her inadvertence in straying from the road and encountering an unexpected shoulder defect. These factors in combination with her instinctive overreaction when her wheels dropped onto the low shoulder caused her injuries. Unlike the motorist in Sinitiere, Mrs. LeBlanc had no knowledge or notice of the shoulder defect before encountering it and no reasonable opportunity to avoid it. Although the dropoff in the present case was substantial, it was not immediately apparent to a motorist approaching the curve at a normal speed. Mrs. LeBlanc had never driven on the road before, and there were no signs to alert her to the drop-off. Discovering the dropoff only as her wheels slipped over the edge, Mrs. LeBlanc's immediate instinctive reaction led directly to her loss of control and the accident. Consequently, it is necessary that we carefully examine the facts of the present case to determine whether there is a legal duty imposed upon the Department which protects against the particular risk involved.

The accident in this case occurred because of the four to six inch dropoff of the shoulder at the site of the mishap. If the Department had maintained the shoulder at the same or approximate elevation of the roadway the plaintiff probably would not have lost control of her car. The evidence is undisputed that the four to six inch dropoff of the shoulder created a dangerous hazard to motorists and was a cause in fact of Mrs. LeBlanc's accident.

If the defendant's conduct of which the plaintiff complains is a cause in fact of the harm, we are then required in a determination of negligence to ascertain whether the defendant breached a legal duty imposed to protect against the particular risk involved. Hill v. Lundin & Associates, Inc., 260 La. 542, 256 So.2d 620 (1972); Jones...

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