County worker runs stop sign and crashes into SUV, killing three children

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Verdicts & Settlements: Government Liability

October 8, 2009

County worker runs stop sign and crashes into SUV, killing three children 

Joseph Armstrong, a county correctional officer, was driving to work one morning. As he approached an intersection, he ignored the “stop ahead” and “stop” signs and proceeded through at highway speed.

At that moment, Tanya Rader, 26, was also proceeding through the intersection. Armstrong’s pickup truck hit her SUV, killing Rader’s three children, who were between 1 and 5 years old.

Rader suffered a shoulder derangement and continues to experience chronic low back pain and posttraumatic stress disorder. Her medical costs were about $48,200.  Rader was a stay-at-home mother and did not claim lost income.

Rader and her husband sued Armstrong for his failure to stop. The plaintiffs also sued the county, alleging respondeat superior liability and claiming that the signs were dangerous and defective conditions of public property because they were partially obscured. The plaintiffs also noted that the county had failed to reapply roadway stenciling alerting drivers to the signs after the road had been repaved earlier that year.

The county moved for summary judgment on the respondeat superior claim, arguing that the going and coming rule—which holds that an employee is not within the scope of employment when traveling to or from work—applied to Armstrong on the day of the crash. The court denied the motion. The county planned to renew the motion at trial.

The court also denied the defendant summary judgment on the issue of the stenciling: The county argued it was irrelevant that the stenciling had not been reapplied because any driver exercising reasonable care would not have run the stop sign.

The Raders also sued two landowners on whose property the signs were located for partially obscuring the signs.

The parties settled for $2.41 million, including $1.36 million from the county, $500,000 and $490,000 from the landowners, and $60,000 from Armstrong.

Citation: Rader v. Co. of Tulare, No. 07-225967 (Cal., Tulare Co. Super. Mar. 12, 2009).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ member Richard C. Watters, Fresno, California.

Plaintiff experts: Thomas G. Schultz, traffic engineering, Morgan Hill, California; David Whitney, human factors, Davis, California; David Yoshida, accident reconstruction, Palo Alto, California; Mark Whelchel, crush analysis, Friant, California; and Kurt Miller, neurology, Fresno, California.

Defense experts: Robert B. Post, human factors, Davis, California; Raymond Merala, mechanical engineering, Hayward, California; and Richard F. Ryan, traffic engineering, Amboy, Washington.

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