Tort Liability for Highway Design

The system of streets and highways in the United States covers many thousands of miles of road surface constructed of various kinds of materials and designed for a variety of vehicle types and operations. The extensive use of the streets and highways inevitably results in a large number of motor vehicle accidents that annually cause thousands of deaths and personal injuries and extensive amounts of property damage. In the legal actions that follow, it is not surprising that the design and construction of the roadways on which such accidents take place should be brought into a case as possible bases for a finding of liability.

Legal actions dealing with highway design and construction may involve issues related to deficiencies in the configuration, structure, and materials of a highway itself, appurtenant structures such as guardrails and light poles, or the types of signs and other warning devices employed along a roadway. Governmental units involved in such actions may argue that their conduct in the planning and design aspects of a highway construction project involves uniquely governmental functions calling for the exercise of discretion and the making of policy decisions, and they may thus assert that they should be immune from suit in such cases. Tort liability of governmental entities is often dealt with by statutes referred to as tort claims acts, which may specify the types of governmental actions that may be made the subject of lawsuits. Contractors involved in such a legal action may argue in their defense that they should be relieved of liability because their operations were conducted in accordance with the requirements and specifications of a government contract and that their operations were properly carried out under those requirements and specifications.

Tort law, the branch of the law that deals with the recovery of damages for private injuries or wrongs not arising out of contractual relationships, has developed in the United States under the separate legal systems of the individual states, supplemented by a body of decisional law established in federal courts throughout the country, rather than out of a single unified body of federal law. As a result, the legal standards governing cases in which issues related to highway design and construction are raised will vary from state to state.