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.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.