'Ramp effect' snow accident results in award for victim's family; Missouri DOT to pay $620,000

| 1/28/2002

According to Missouri Lawyers Weekly, the Missouri Department of Transportation has been ordered to pay more than $620,000 to the family of a 13-year-old girl killed when a car catapulted into the Meramec River. She was a passenger in a car driven by her father. After hitting snow plowed against a guardrail by MoDOT crews, the car slid up and over the rail into the river below.

The arbitrators who issued the order said MoDOT was negligent in piling up the snow on an Interstate 55 bridge in Arnold and that MoDOT had decided not to send out overtime crews to correct the problem for "economic reasons." In addition, the arbitrators indicated that MoDOT could have been liable for punitive damages for "gross negligence" had sovereign immunity damage caps not applied.

The Missouri Lawyers' Weekly reports Donald Johnston of Higginsville, MO, was driving on Interstate 55 in Jefferson County with his daughter Stephanie on Dec. 26, 2000, when his Nissan pickup truck began to skid toward the edge of the bridge spanning the river. Snow had been piled up next to the guard rail by MoDOT crews following a heavy storm on Dec. 13 and several storms over the next few days.

The Johnston car ramped over the snow and fell 56 feet into the Meramec. Upon impact with the iced-over river, Stephanie was thrown through the rear window into a hole in the ice and drowned. Johnston suffered a broken neck. His wife Mary sued in Jefferson County Circuit Court, alleging that MoDOT created a dangerous condition by plowing snow up against the guard rail and allowing it to remain in that condition for 13 days. MoDOT claimed that Johnston was driving too fast for the conditions and that the department had followed its snow removal policies correctly. Under a Missouri statute, the Johnstons requested that their claim be submitted to binding arbitration before a panel of three arbitrators. In the arbitration, accident reconstruction experts for both sides estimated that the car was traveling at 50 mph when it began to skid.

Attorneys for the Johnstons said MoDOT's own maintenance manual recognized that snow could form hazardous ramps and that crews should give "special consideration" to the problem. There was also testimony during the arbitration that police had informed MoDOT of the dangerous condition on the I-55 bride eight days before the accident. The arbitrators concluded that MoDOT "created a dangerous condition on the Highway 55 bridge over the Meramec River by plowing snow against the full height of the guardrail forming a ramp, which effectively eliminated the protection the guardrail was intended to afford to motorists." Moreover, said the arbitrators, this "dangerous condition was permitted to remain upon the bridge for 13 days" before the accident occurred. Noting that overtime crews were not sent out because of "economic reasons," the arbitrators said that in "civil litigation against non-governmental enterprises, failure to remedy dangerous conditions for economic reasons has frequently been held to constitute gross negligence and to warrant the assessment of punitive damages."

The arbitration panel, which included two former Missouri Court of Appeals judges, made two awards of $311,913 for Stephanie's death and Johnston's personal injuries. The awards were confirmed on Jan. 15 by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Timothy J. Patterson.