Worker's negligent placement of traffic cones leads to fatal collision

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Case in Point

March 22, 2011

Worker's negligent placement of traffic cones leads to fatal collision 

The plaintiffs alleged that a ranch and its owner were negligent in directing a laborer to place cones in the roadway during tree-trimming work without authorization from the county. Suit also alleged failure to post warning signs, among other claims. The parties settled for a confidential amount. Smith v. Spurlin.

Darian Gonzalez, 21, was driving his motorcycle when the vehicle in front of him stopped unexpectedly after encountering traffic cones in the road. The cones had been placed by a laborer for Saddlebrook Ranch, L.L.C., who was trimming trees and clearing brush on the ranch’s property adjacent to the road.

Gonzalez was unable to stop in time and struck the vehicle in front of him. He was thrown from his motorcycle and hit by an oncoming car. He suffered multiple blunt-force trauma, from which he died later that day. He is survived by his wife and mother. His medical expenses totaled about $7,300.

At the time of the incident, Gonzalez had his private helicopter pilot’s license and was working toward a commercial license. His lost future earnings based on his educational background and flight training are estimated at about $2.53 million.

Gonzalez’s wife and his mother, individually and on behalf of his estate, sued Saddlebrook Ranch and its owner, James Spurlin, alleging the defendants were negligent in directing the laborer to place cones in the roadway without authorization from the county. The plaintiffs contended that according to the Texas Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices—the industry standard for companies doing road work—cones may be placed in the road only with the authority of the public agency controlling the road. The plaintiffs also argued that the brush-clearing work being performed was not the kind of work for which such permits are granted. Suit alleged violation of a state law prohibiting the placement of unauthorized traffic control devices.

In addition to the code violations, the plaintiffs contended that the cones created an unnecessary hazard to motorists, and that the work should have been confined to the side of the road. Finally, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendants were negligent in failing to post warning signs and to properly supervise the work.

The defendants argued that Gonzalez was solely responsible because he failed to keep a proper lookout, control his speed, and take proper evasive action.

Spurlin’s homeowners insurance carrier denied coverage and filed a separate declaratory judgment action, arguing that his policy covered only his residence, not his business. The court in the underlying lawsuit stayed the proceedings pending the other court’s ruling in the declaratory judgment action. While that action was pending, the parties settled during mediation for a confidential amount, part of which was paid by Spurlin’s insurer.

Citation: Smith v. Spurlin, No. 2009-04621 (Tex., Harris Co. Jud. Dist. Dec. 15, 2010).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ members Robert E. Ammons and April A. Strahan, both of Houston.

Plaintiff experts: Jeff Milburn, traffic engineering, College Station, Texas; and Kenneth McCoin, economics, Houston.

Defense experts: Ted Marules Sr., accident reconstruction, Humble, Texas; and James H. Yeager Jr., economics, Missouri City, Texas.

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