Washington Appeals Court Finds Church Not Liable for Driver’s Failure to Stop at Sign

Most automobile accident cases are based on negligence.  To succeed in a negligence claim, the plaintiff must show that he or she would not have been injured “but for” the defendant’s negligence.  In some cases, there are multiple causes of an accident, and fault and liability may be apportioned among several defendants.

In a recent case, a Washington appeals court considered whether the trial court had erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant, based on the plaintiff’s failure to establish causation.  The plaintiff alleged he was injured in an accident with an intoxicated driver at an intersection near a church. The plaintiff sued the church for negligence, claiming that a tree the church owned obscured the stop sign the driver had run. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the church.  The plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff was crossing the intersection with the right of way when his moped was hit by a car.  The other driver told police he had not stopped at the stop sign.  He ultimately pled guilty to vehicular assault.

The church is at that intersection and owns a tree that obscured the stop sign.  There were photographs in the record that showed the sign was obscured by the branches at various points along the route taken by the driver.

The plaintiff filed suit against the church, the driver, and the city.  He alleged the church had breached its duty to maintain the tree so that its branches did not interfere with the visibility of the stop sign. The driver responded to an interrogatory asking about any facts or circumstances that caused or contributed to the incident by stating he had not seen the stop sign until he got to it.  He further stated that he remembered “trees being there” but did not remember if they obscured his vision. In his deposition, the driver stated that he did not see the sign as he “got up to it.”  He “looked over and saw it” when his passenger pointed out the stop sign.  He acknowledged that it appeared from photographs that the branches would have obscured his view at a particular point.  He also stated, however, that the sign was visible “once you get closer to it.” The driver stated he did not know why he missed the stop sign.

The church moved for summary judgment, arguing the driver’s failure to follow the rules of the road was the sole proximate cause of the collision.  The plaintiff argued that the branches obscured the sign and prevented the driver from seeing the sign and stopping in time.  The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment.

The appeals court summarized the plaintiff’s evidence that the branches caused the accident.  First, the driver said he had not seen the sign in time to stop.  The passenger said the tree obscured the sign.  An expert witness said the sign was not visible from the place where the driver would have to brake to avoid a crash.  Expert measurements showed that an emergency stop was necessary to stop within sight distance.  Although the driver was intoxicated, there was evidence he had driven for more than 15 miles, some of it through residential and commercial streets, and he stopped at all of the other stop signs.

The appeals court, however, found that the evidence was not proof that the driver failed to stop because he could not see the sign.  The defendant testified repeatedly that he did not know why he did not stop.  The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the driver’s statement regarding the photograph was proof of causation.  The court found the driver’s statement speculative.  The appeals court found the plaintiff’s evidence insufficient to establish causation and affirmed.

Although the plaintiff here was unsuccessful in establishing proximate cause, there are cases in which acts or omissions of someone other than a driver can be a proximate cause of an accident.  Even if the other driver was intoxicated, there may be other sources of recovery if the facts and circumstances show another party had some fault for the accident.  If you have been seriously injured in an automobile accident, our Washington car accident attorneys can help you sort through the facts and identify the potential sources of recovery.  If you’ve been hurt in an automobile accident, call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562.

More Blog Posts:

Washington Vehicle Owner Not Liable for Accident Caused by Non-Permissive Driver

Washington Appeals Court Upholds Defense Summary Judgment for “Favored Driver”


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