State’s duty regarding the maintenance of public roads: KY TRANSPORTATION CABINET V. AMANDA GUFFEY, ADM’X OF ESTATE OF JEREMIAH GUFFEY (SC 1/24/2008)

DATE RENDERED: 01/24/2008

KY Transportation Cabinet, Dept. of Highways (KDOH) appeals COA’s May 2006 decision that affirmed the TC’s judgment in favor of Guffey (administer of husband’s estate), which had reversed the final order of the Ky. Board of Claims (BOC) dismissing Guffey’s claims. The COA’s published decision was previously digested in the June 2006 edition of the LawWire, and the facts relevant to both appeals court’s decisions are as follows: While riding an ATV, Guffey’s husband was killed by a suspended cable running across a roadway in Wayne County that is owned by the state, but had not been used by the public for over 20 years. The cable had been placed by an adjacent landowner in order to prevent access to their private property, and it was undisputed that the KDOH knew or should have known of its presence. Upon a complaint being filed with the BOC and a hearing having been held, the Hearing Officer entered his recommendations to deny the claim for 2 reasons: 1) The accident did not occur on a public roadway (as defined in the relevant statutes) so the deceased could not be considered a member of the traveling public since state law forbid ATV’s from traveling on any public roadway; and 2) The accident was not foreseeable to the KDOH since it could not expect someone to operate an ATV on a public roadway in violation of state law. Guffey appealed the BOC’s dismissal to the Wayne Circuit Court, which ruled that the KTC owed the deceased a duty to keep the roadway in a reasonably safe condition, to provide proper safeguards, and to give adequate warning of any dangerous condition. It found that the deceased’s accident was foreseeable and that his illegal operation of the ATV on a public road did not preclude his estate’s recovery since the BOC was required to apply a comparative negligence standard to the case. Guffey was awarded the maximum allowable recovery in a BOC action (less the allowed set-off).

On appeal, the COA affirmed the TC’s ruling that the KDOH owed a duty to the deceased and that his accident and damages were foreseeable. The COA rejected the KDOH’s argument that the deceased’s violation of state law in operating the ATV was a superseding cause of the accident and injuries. The COA determined that the TC had properly weighed the comparative fault of the KDOH and the deceased in its decision since the latter would have to have been over 85% at fault for his estate to receive less than the maximum allowable recovery of $200,000 in the BOC. Judge Guidugli dissented as he felt that the deceased was not a member of the traveling public as that term is statutorily defined since ATV’s are statutorily prohibited from being operated on a public roadway.

On to the Supreme Court, it unanimously affirmed the COA"s decision (which itself affirmed the TC decision) with regard to the existence of a duty on the part of the KDOH, ruling that the TC correctly addressed the principal legal issues raised by the KDOH on appeal. The SC felt the Appellant’s arguments were inconsistent – if this stretch of unused roadway was, in fact, NOT a public roadway by definition, then how could the decedent be considered to have violated the statutory ban of ATVs on public roadways? The SC also had no trouble in affirming the COA and TC that the decedent’s injuries and damages were foreseeable and easily distinguished the facts of the primary case relied upon by the BOC in its decision since it felt that a cable stretched across a public road by a known trespasser with full knowledge of this fact by the KDOH was certainly a treacherous trap. The SC also took issue with the BOC’s finding that the decedent was not a member of the traveling public (defined as anyone lawfully using a public roadway), noting that this mindset would require a conclusion that all persons driving on public roadways with expired license plates, suspended drivers’ licenses, etc. could be "mangled at will by state sponsored indifference." However, the SC did rule that the TC exceeded its authority under KRS 44.140(5) when it went on to make independent findings of fact as to damages as well as apportionment. The TC does not have the authority, when reviewing decisions of the BOC, to make an award when the BOC has refused to do so, but instead is limited to remanding the case to the BOC if the TC disagrees with its decision. Thus, the SC remanded this case to the BOC to make a proper apportionment of liability between the KDOH, the decedent and the adjacent landowner who installed and maintained the cable as well as issue an award of damages up to the $200,000 maximum.


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