February 8, 2016: NC Court of Appeals Upholds Ruling in High-Profile Charlotte Tort Case: Holt v. NCDOT, COA15-445

Anyone in the Charlotte area likely remembers a horrible 2009 accident, resulting in the deaths of three individuals, one of which was a professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina. After leaving Carowinds, a car driven by Tyler Stasko encountered a car driven by Carlene Atkinson at a stoplight. Stasko had two young boys in his vehicle and Atkinson had two young females in her vehicle. Evidently, the passengers in each car knew each other and began gesturing and joking with each other. When the light turned green the vehicles engaged in a high-speed street race. As the vehicles were traveling at high-rate of speed, Cynthia Furr, with her two-year-old daughter in the car, pulled out of her neighborhood on her way to church. Ms. Furr's car was broadsided by Tyler Stasko's car, killing Ms. Furr and her daughter, along with one of the young boys in Stasko's car.

While Stasko and Atkinson's conduct was blatantly reckless, this civil action was actually brought against the North Carolina Department of Transportation by the estates of the three individuals who were killed in this accident. The action was brought under the North Carolina Tort Claims Act and alleged that the State was negligent in its failure to install a traffic light at the intersection where the accident occurred. As a part of the development plan in the area, a land developer was supposed to fund the traffic light installation and the State was supposed to install it. This never happened.

Thus, the crux of the plaintiff's claim was that had there been a traffic light where it was supposed to be, the speeding vehicle would have either slowed down or come to a stop, sparing the lives of the three victims. This case is especially interesting because it presents a "textbook" scenario for the principle of proximate cause. Simply put, proximate cause addresses whether it was reasonably foreseeable that the failure to install a traffic light could result in the accident that occurred.

Of course, the State argued that it is not reasonably foreseeable that two vehicles will be street racing down the road, nor that a traffic light would even have prevented the accident. Moreover, the State argued that a decision holding it liable for the deaths in this case would create a precedent that the State is always liable for accidents occurring in places where a traffic light should have been installed, but was not.

The Industrial Commission, who heard the case initially, disagreed with the State and awarded $1 million to each victim's estate. The Court of Appeals agreed and upheld the award. The opinion is lengthy and very well-reasoned; however, the short summary of their reasoning is that the State should have been able to foresee that a vehicle would be traveling at a very high speed through this area and that a traffic light would have likely caused that vehicle to slow down. Because there were no stoplights or stop signs in between where the "race" began and the scene of the accident, the State could not sufficiently allege that the traffic light wouldn't have prevented the accident.

Among the three judges who heard the case, Judge Elmore dissented. Thus, this case will likely be heard again at the North Carolina Supreme Court level. The issues in this case were truly razor-thin and a very good illustration of how difficult tort law issues can be.

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