The Alabama Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that, if not changed, may well have profound negative implications for the citizens of the State of Alabama. The case arises out of a road construction resurfacing of highway 84 in Clarke County. In March of 2001, the Alabama Department of Transportation awarded a contract to Weaver and Sons, Inc., a contractor, to resurface approximately eight miles of that highway. The resurfacing project was finished in March of 2002. The Alabama Department of Transportation notified Weaver and Sons that the state would be assuming the maintenance of the resurfaced highway.
In October 2007, there was an accident involving a vehicle operated by Danny Balch that was occupied by two other members of the Balch family. As a result of the collision, Danny, Bernard Balch and Armie Balch died. Claims were brought against Weaver and Sons for the negligent resurfacing of the project. There were numerous deficiencies alleged in the resurfacing of the paving project, including the edge drop-off and highway width. There was evidence at the trial of the case that Weaver lost control of the vehicle because of a significant pavement edge drop-off.
There was expert testimony that reflected that the accident occurred because Weaver did not comply with the road-resurfacing specifications provided by the Alabama Department of Transportation with regard to the cross slope and width of the road. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Balch personal representatives of the Balch family and against Weaver and Sons for the three deaths.
On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court, in a split decision, ruled that Weaver had no duty to the Balch family because the Alabama Department of Transportation accepted the road work performed by Weaver. This ruling potentially creates a dangerous precedent. Fortunately, only four of the justices voted to apply the “accepted work” doctrine. Under that doctrine, the road builder is immune from liability when the State accepts the work under the completed contract. While this result takes away the recovery for this family, it does much more. Road builders will hold this opinion up any time there is an injury or death caused by a defective road and claim immunity where the road has been accepted by the State. This ruling does nothing to protect the public. In fact, the implications of this decision may go much further.
The next logical step is that Defendants will now allege that anything accepted by a governmental entity will give immunity to the underlying contractor. The case brings to mind the work that was performed recently in the airport in Birmingham. A young child was killed when a monitor system fell on him shortly after completion of renovation work at the airport. This child was simply walking in the airport with his family returning from a vacation. He did nothing wrong. Should the contractors be immune because this work was accepted by the Airport Authority? The Weaver case will likely be argued as legal precedent.
There is a motion to reconsider the Weaver case pending before the Supreme Court. Hopefully, a majority of the court will recognize this decision as a decision that is not in the best interest of the people of Alabama, nor is it supported by legal precedent. The Court has recently corrected decisions that were bad for the public. Hopefully, this opinion will be withdrawn and the proper application of Alabama law substituted for a bad decision.
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