Personal Injury Case Regarding Overpass Low Clearance and Signage Immunity

Koehler v. Smith

Docket No.: A-2414-18T4

Decided October 1, 2020

Submitted by New Jersey Personal Injury Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

In a recent unpublished decision, the Appellate Division considered whether a private contractor was subject to traffic sign immunity when a bucket truck boom struck a low underpass that lacked low clearance signage causing injury to plaintiff.

In Koehler, Traffic was flowing normally, when the boom of a bucket truck – that was in tow – struck the overpass, flew off, hit the roof of plaintiff’s car and entered the sunroof, causing plaintiff’s accident. Defendant was the general contractor of a multi-year road-improvement project which included the overpass.  The contract required an on-site traffic control coordinator, whose responsibilities included traffic control operations on the construction site for changing construction conditions, and the setup and removal of temporary traffic signs and markers.

Built approximately forty years ago, the vertical clearance of the Ridge Road overpass was thirteen feet, nine inches. Since 1986, overpasses and bridges in New Jersey with clearances of fewer than fourteen feet, six inches are required by statute to “have the maximum clearance marked or posted thereon,” N.J.S.A. 27:5G-1(a), and warning signs, indicating the maximum clearance, “posted at the last safe exit or detour preceding the bridge or overpass,” N.J.S.A. 27:5G-1(b). No such marking or sign warned drivers of the low-vertical clearance for the Ridge Road overpass.

Six months before plaintiff’s accident, a similar accident had occurred at the same overpass, when the boom of a fully-extended forklift, towed on a flatbed truck, struck the overpass.

Plaintiff’s expert testified that the underpass should have had signage for the low underpass.  He acknowledged that this was normally the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) responsibility and they had not placed signage on the underpass for years.  When asked whether the defendant contractor should address the signage issue on his own, the plaintiff’s expert responded that that was a “gray area.”

Defendant moved for summary judgment. The trial judge granted summary judgment, ruling that the defendant owed no duty to the plaintiff to address the signage, as the contractor was entitled to derivative immunity, stemming from the signage immunity given to public employees and entities.  The judge also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the situation constituted an emergency exception to the signage immunity, as the DOT had ignored the lack of sign for several years.  Further, plaintiff’s own expert – albeit uncontroverted as defendant did not provide their own expert – admitted the defendant’s responsibility to place signage on its own was a “gray area.”

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division affirmed on substantially similar grounds.

This case is important to understand that public employees and public entities have signage immunity – immunity from lawsuits stemming from personal injury as a result of failure to place ordinary signs.  Contractors working for the DOT can also share this immunity when working on public roadways.  An exception to the signage immunity exists when there is a short term emergency requiring signage to be added.  For instance, a stop sign at an intersection being knocked over would require immediate action.  Otherwise, public entities, employees and certain contractors working on public roadways are immune to suit for personal injury stemming from lack of signage. Make sure you hire an attorney well versed in public immunity law, that way you don’t wind up paying thousands in expert fees only to find out your case is dismissed.

If you or someone you know has been injured in a motor vehicle accident, slip and fall, product liability, truck crash, wrongful death, or other premises related injury, you need to make sure you contact a personal injury attorney with experience today.  Failing to consider these issues could result in your case be dismissed permanently.  Do not hesitate to contact Hark & Hark today to discuss your personal injury.

For personal injury matters, you pay nothing upfront, and our fee is paid as a percentage of your recovery. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in all towns in New Jersey, including Absecon, Atlantic City, Brigantine, Buena Borough, Buena Vista Township, Corbin City, Egg Harbor City, Egg Harbor Township, Estell Manor, Folsom, Galloway Township, Hamilton Township, Hammonton, Linwood, Longport, Margate, Mullica Township, Northfield, Pleasantville, Port Republic, Somers Point, Ventnor, and Weymouth Township.

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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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