Watson v. Kansas City

Decision Date10 September 1973
Docket NumberNo. 56432,56432
Citation499 S.W.2d 515
PartiesDoris E. WATSON and William L. Watson, Respondents, v. KANSAS CITY, Missouri, Appellant.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Von Erdmannsdorff & Kuhlman, North Kansas City, Philip C. Ehli, Kansas City, for respondents.

Aaron A. Wilson, Jr., City Counselor, Robert A. Dalopolos, Charles A. Lewis, Associate City Counselors, Kansas City, for appellant; Sevier & Turnage, Robert F. Sevier, Liberty, of counsel.

HOLMAN, Judge.

Plaintiff, Doris E. Watson, was seriously injured when the car she was driving 'overshot' a T intersection and continued down a rock-strewn hillside 55 feet before coming to a stop. The filed this suit seeking damages from the City of Kansas City, based upon the contention that her injuries resulted from the failure of the City to warn of the dangerous condition existing at that place. Her husband joined in the action and sought a recovery for loss of her services and consortium. A trial resulted in a verdict for Doris in the amount of $75,000 and for William in the sum of $10,000. Defendant has appealed. We have jurisdiction because of the amount involved since the appeal was taken prior to January 1, 1972, the effective date of new Art. V, § 3, Mo.Const., V.A.M.S. We reverse.

Plaintiff 1 was employed at a plant in Grandview which was 17 miles from her home. On the morning of January 22, 1968, the unexpected illness of the man with whom her husband rode to work made it necessary for her to take him. Because of that situation she knew she would be late to her work. They left home shortly after 6 a.m., and when they arrived at the place where William worked he told her to go north on North Manchester for about a mile to Levee Road and then turn left. There was a slight mist in the air and there were intermittent patches of fog. It was still dark and the roadway was damp.

Plaintiff testified that she had never been over this road and did not know that North Manchester formed a T intersection with Levee Road; that she was driving at 20 to 25 miles per hour and, after going 3/4 of a mile, she came out of a blanket of fog and saw the sign for Levee Road; that there had been no signs warning that this was a T intersection; that she started to put on her brakes but that she had no idea whether the car started to slow down before it left the roadway; that she did not 'jam' on the brakes for fear of spinning the car around; that she could not see the trees in the area beyond and assumed that North Manchester extended beyond the intersection that she intended to make a normal stop and then either back up or turn around in order to go left on Levee Road; that she saw no other vehicles and was 'pretty sure' she could have made her turn if she had been familiar with the road; that a car length is 15 or 20 feet, and she had no idea of the stopping distance of a car going 20 or 25 miles per hour; that she continued north, went across the width of Levee Road, the shoulder, and then down the embankment; that after leaving the shoulder the land does not drop 'straight off' but slopes down the hillside.

A police officer who investigated the accident testified that North Manchester and Levee Road were each about 35 feet wide; that the car stopped 55 feet from the roadway and that the hillside dropped 25 or 30 feet in that distance; that he found plaintiff in a 'more or less' stunned condition; that no skid marks were made by plaintiff's car.

In answers to imterrogatories defendant stated that it had no record of any signs, signal, or control devices on North Manchester within 500 feet of the intersection in question. There is no evidence as to the width of the shoulder on the north side of Levee Road but both sides accept the assumption that it was from four to seven feet.

Hillard Jackson, a witness for defendant, was on the premises of the city Refuse Plant near the intersection in question. He testified that he saw plaintiff's car go by and would estimate her speed at 40 miles per hour; that he had a service truck radio for help and then went to the plaintiff's car; that the levee slants at a 45 angle. Over objection, he was permitted to testify on cross-examination that other vehicles had 'slipped off the levee.'

Another eyewitness who saw the car go over the embankment said it was 'moving pretty fast.'

The plaintiff's claims were submitted to the jury upon a required finding,

'First, that the roadway on which plaintiff, Doris E. Watson, was traveling ended abruptly and there was a dangerous declivity at or near the edge of the roadway, and

'Second, the defendant knew or by the use of ordinary care should have known of the existence of such condition, and

'Third, the defendant failed to warn of such dangerous condition.'

We have concluded that the trial court erred in failing to direct a verdict for defendant or to enter an after-trial judgment for it. This for the reasons (1) that the installation of a traffic device or sign to warn of the T intersection would have been a governmental function, and negligence, if any, in respect thereto imposes no liability on the city; and (2) even if we disregard the governmental immunity doctrine, there is no duty on the defendant to warn of the danger of driving off the street in a situation such as the one heretofore described.

This court has said that '(I)t is well established that a municipality is not liable in tort for the negligent performance of its governmental as distinguished from its corporate functions. Cassidy v. City of St. Joseph, 247 Mo. 197, 152 S.W. 306; Pearson v. Kansas City, 331 Mo. 885, 55 S.W.2d 485; Auslander v. City of St. Louis, 332 Mo. 145, 56 S.W.2d 778; Carruthers v. City of St. Louis, 341 Mo. 1073, 111 S.W.2d 32; Blackburn v. City of St. Louis, 343 Mo. 301, 121 S.W.2d 727. See also 18 McQuillen, Municipal Corporations, 3d Ed., § 53.23. And it has repeatedly been held, and plaintiff concedes, that the regulation of traffic is a governmental function. Prewitt v. City of St. Joseph, 334 Mo. 1228, 70 S.W.2d 916; Auslander v. City of St. Louis, supra; Carruthers v. City of St. Louis, supra; Blackburn v. City of St. Louis, supra.' Hiltner v. Kansas City, 293 S.W.2d 422, 425 (Mo.1956). Many other applicable cases are discussed in Gillen v. City of St. Louis, 345 S.W.2d 69 (Mo.1961), and such discussion need not be repeated here.

In 18 McQuillen, Municipal Corporations, § 53.42, it is said that '(M)any courts have decided that a city functions in a governmental capacity in maintaining traffic signs, and in the operation of a traffic light system. Where this broad general rule is in effect, it follows that a municipality may not be held liable for an injury caused by the disintegration of a stop sign, or by the city's failure to replace a missing stop sign, or for an injury resulting from the failure to keep traffic lights functioning properly.'

As indicated by the cases cited, it seems to us that there can be no reasonable argument concerning the validity of the proposition that the placing (or failure to place) of a sign on North Manchester to warn that the intersection in question was a T intersection is a form of traffic regulation, direction, or control, and hence a governmental function. It follows that there would be no liability on defendant for its alleged negligence in failing to install such a sign on North Manchester.

We have not overlooked the well-settled rule that it is the duty of a city to exercise ordinary care to keep its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel and that it is liable in damages for its failure to do so. In this case, however, there is no contention that there was any defect or obstruction in the streets that made up this intersection and hence this rule would have no application.

Alternatively, plaintiffs have asked that, in the event we consider the doctrine of governmental immunity applicable, we review that doctrine and overrule it insofar as it applies to municipal corporations. We have frequently been asked to re-examine this doctrine and to abolish it by judicial decree but have steadfastly ruled that any change in the application of the doctrine should be accomplished by legislative enactment. See Fette v. City of St. Louis, 366 S.W.2d 446 (Mo.1963), and Smith v. Consolidated School District No. 2, 408 S.W.2d 50 (Mo.1966). There are two reasons why we consider it unnecessary to re-examine the doctrine in this case. The first is that Division Two of this court very recently reviewed the soundness of the doctrine and rejected a request for the wholesale abrogation of it in the case of Payne v. County of Jackson, 484 S.W.2d 483 (Mo.1972). Secondly, we hold therein that plaintiffs, aside from the immunity doctrine, are not entitled to recover.

As indicated, it is our view that the City is not liable because it had no duty to warn in the situation here presented. 'It is well settled that there is no duty upon a city to erect guards to prevent drivers from leaving that part of the highway set aside for use by the public.' Hauck v. Kansas City Public Service Co., 239 Mo.App. 1092, 200 S.W.2d 608, 613 (1947). An exception to that rule is that a city is liable for injuries sustained by reason of its failure to barricade or warn of an excavation or other dangerous condition which is so near to the traveled portion of the street that a pedestrian, by accidental misstep or a vehicle occupant by a slight inadvertent deviation, is caused to be injured. Lavinge v. City of Jefferson, 262 S.W.2d 60 (Mo.App.1953). That exception is not applicable in this case. This T intersection was not particularly dangerous. There were no defects or obstructions in the street itself. It was an ordinary T intersection and was no more dangerous than most all such intersections. Of course, almost every T intersection or jog in a street is dangerous if a driver goes through the cross street and departs into the area beyond. In...

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9 cases
  • O'Dell v. School Dist. of Independence
    • United States
    • Missouri Supreme Court
    • March 10, 1975
    ...persons of the basic right to recover damages for negligence from the state and its subdivisions.' On September 10, 1973, in Watson v. Kansas City, 499 S.W.2d 515 (Mo. banc 1973), the doctrine of governmental immunity came under oblique scrutiny in this Court. In Watson, Judge Finch filed a......
  • German v. Kansas City
    • United States
    • Missouri Supreme Court
    • June 24, 1974
    ...arising from regulation or nonregulation of traffic, a governmental function for which it is not liable; and also c.f. Watson v. Kansas City, 499 S.W.2d 515, l.c. 518 (Mo. banc), where there was no construction or route changing, and holding that 'the placing (or failure to place) of a sign......
  • Davies v. City of Kansas City, Mo.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Missouri
    • March 2, 1983
    ...traffic control is a governmental function. Auslander v. City of St. Louis, 332 Mo. 145, 56 S.W.2d 778 (Mo.1932); Watson v. Kansas City, 499 S.W.2d 515 (Mo.1973). The defendant denies that it waived sovereign immunity by the purchase of liability insurance. At oral argument, plaintiff's cou......
  • Spotts v. City of Kansas City, WD
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • February 17, 1987
    ...more analogous to the cases involving regulation of traffic than to the cases involving obstructions in the street. See e.g., Watson v. Kansas City, 499 S.W.2d 515 (Mo. banc 1973); Gillen v. City of St. Louis, 345 S.W.2d 69 (Mo.1961). Regulating traffic at the scene of an accident is a gove......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Section 9.7 Judicial Abolition of Sovereign Immunity
    • United States
    • The Missouri Bar Local Government Deskbook Chapter 9 Governmental Tort Liability
    • Invalid date
    ...(§9.7) Judicial Abolition of Sovereign Immunity In Watson v. Kansas City, 499 S.W.2d 515, 520 (Mo. banc 1973), Judge James Finch, in a concurring opinion, reiterated his belief that the Court should reexamine the doctrine of governmental immunity. Two years later, in O’Dell v. School Distri......

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