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Municipalities Now Responsible for Addressing View-Obstructing Roadside Vegetation


February 4, 2016 by Bob Meinig
Category: Streets and Sidewalks

Municipalities Now Responsible for Addressing View-Obstructing Roadside Vegetation

In a short, unanimous opinion issued last week, the Washington Supreme Court concluded that a municipality – a city or county – can be held liable for hazardous conditions on its roads created by sight-obstructing roadside vegetation. The first sentences of Wuthrich v. King County succinctly summarize the court’s holding:

A municipality's duty to maintain its roadways in a reasonably safe condition for ordinary travel is not confined to the asphalt. If a wall of roadside vegetation makes the roadway unsafe by blocking a driver's view of oncoming traffic at an intersection, the municipality has a duty to take reasonable steps to address it.

This case involved a driver who, after stopping at a stop sign, entered a road and hit a motorcyclist she had not seen because of overgrown blackberry bushes at the intersection.

Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, based on three prior state Supreme Court decisions that the Wuthrich court held no longer applied because they were decided before the Legislature waived sovereign immunity for municipalities. Even under sovereign immunity, however, municipalities had a duty to address conditions outside the roadway that were “inherently dangerous or misleading.” Under these prior decisions, though, a municipality had no duty to address dangerous sight obstructions caused by roadside vegetation. In Barton v. King County, 18 Wn.2d 573, 576 (1943), the court stated that, to hold otherwise, “it would be to hold, literally, that thousands of county road intersections are inherently dangerous.” The Barton court concluded that, “[t]o so hold would impose an imponderable responsibility upon counties.”

Under Wuthrich v. King County, cities and counties seemingly now have that “imponderable responsibility” to address dangerous sight obstructions caused by roadside vegetation. The court noted that whether a condition is inherently dangerous does not depend on whether the condition "exists in the roadway itself." But, rejecting the notion of excessive liability exposure for municipalities as result of its decision, the court emphasized that "only reasonable care is owed" (court’s emphasis) in addressing dangerous sight obstructions caused by roadside vegetation.

Regardless of whether this new responsibility imposed by Wuthrich v. King County is “imponderable,” it is an added one that cities and counties, in consultation with their attorneys and insurers, will need to address. While the full implications from this decision remain to be seen, I think it’s likely to result in cities and counties devoting significant additional resources to the trimming and removal of roadside vegetation that might cause dangerous sight obstructions.

About Bob Meinig

Bob has written extensively on the state Open Public Meetings Act and on municipal incorporation and annexation. At MRSC, he has also advised local governments for over 25 years on diverse legal issues.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Bob Meinig

Comments

"I am also interested in your response to Dave Zabell concerning the delineation between public right of way and private property owners responsibility."

Rich Tyhuis on Feb 19, 2016 12:32 PM

"Bob, As our agency (CRAB) deals with county road issues, any new developments that affect how counties own, operate, and maintain county roads are of keen interest to us. Can you please copy us on any further correspondence, reports, articles on this issue. The ROW issue is huge here, especially for rural and agricultural agencies."

Derek Pohle, PE on Feb 11, 2016 1:11 PM

"Bob, I would appreciate it if you could copy me on your response to Mr. Zabell. Thanks,"

Ryan Brown on Feb 9, 2016 2:18 PM

"Bob, Is the term roadside vegetation limited to vegetation within the public ROW? Or does this create an additional enforcement burden on local government to require private property owners to address overgrown vegetation? The term "naturally growing" - if a corner were overgrown with shrubbery planted on private property but spilling out into the ROW,......would this decision be applicable?"

Dave Zabell on Feb 4, 2016 1:27 PM

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