Fatal Auto Accident from Nonfunctioning Traffic Light

The Baltimore Sun reported that a change ordered in procedure for nonfunctioning traffic light was implemented after two teenagers were killed in an auto accident in Columbia, Maryland. Howard County police are now requiring officers to stay at nonfunctioning signals until they are fixed or until a stop sign or another temporary device is taken to the scene. Howard County also is also testing a battery backup system for traffic lights in an attempt to control the danger of faulty traffic lights.

This was obviously an awful tragedy. If the county made a mistake in either failing to maintain the light or in taking the proper precautions after the light malfunctions in this case or in a similar case, they may be amenable to suit. This issue was addressed in Montgomery County v. Voorhees, 86 Md. App. 294 (1991). In this case, Montgomery County’s attorneys argued that it was immune from suit stemming from an auto accident at Route 29 and Fairland Road under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, and even if it was not immune from suit, its planning, designing, and timing of the traffic light was not the proximate cause of the accident. The Court of Special Appeals found that operating traffic lights was a governmental act that was not covered by sovereign immunity and that a reasonable jury could have concluded, as it did, the Montgomery County was the sole proximate cause of the accident. Unfortunately, a bit of quick research that I did on this issue indicates that Florida courts appear to disagree, finding that even when a municipality is negligent in disabling or failing to repair a traffic light, there was no liability even in the absence of negligence on the part of the driver.

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