Washington Supreme Court Rejects Legal Liability Defense for Utilities and Municipalities Where Criminally Negligent Drivers Cause Accidents
The Washington Supreme Court today found that utilities and municipalities may be liable for injuries sustained in car-pole accidents even where the driver is criminally negligent. While a range of defenses remain in such cases, today's ruling as a practical matter makes it considerably more difficult for municipalities and utilities to obtain summary judgment where a claim of negligent design can be made, even where the immediate cause of an injury is gross or criminal misconduct. Lowman v. Wilbur, No. 86584-1 (issued August 8, 2013).
The Supreme Court's opinion addresses a claim for injuries as a result of a car-pole accident, one of the most common tort claims brought against utilities using above-ground lines and government agencies involved in road design and maintenance. In this case, the plaintiff had been drinking with a companion at a bar in Skagit County. After leaving the bar, the plaintiff got into a car with his drinking companion, who was visibly impaired, taking the wheel. Later, the driver lost control on a curvy, two-lane country road near Anacortes and hit a Puget Sound Energy ("PSE") utility pole at a speed 10-15 miles per hour above the posted limit. The driver, whose blood alcohol content was far above the legal limit, was later convicted of vehicular assault.