Davison v. Snohomish County

Supreme Court of Washington, 1928.

149 Wash. 109, 270 P. 422.

Prosser, pp. 137-139


Facts: The plaintiffs were driving across a bridge and lost control.  Their car skidded, broke through a railing, and fell to the ground.  The plaintiffs sued for their injuries, alleging that the county was negligent in not installing railings strong enough to keep a car from breaking through.  The defendants alleged contributory negligence and denied its own negligence.  The plaintiffs won at trial.  The defendant first moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and was denied.  Then the defendant appealed.


Issue: Was the county negligent in failing to install guardrails that are capable of preventing a car from leaving the road?


Rule: As a matter of public policy, we want roads to be built and maintained, and thus we cannot require safety measures that would make roads generally unaffordable.


Analysis: The court finds that it’s extra hard to make sturdy railings on elevated causeways or viaducts.  Since we still want to be able to drive on such structures, it is against public policy interests to subject communities to liability for non-ideal safety precautions.


Conclusion: The court reversed the trial court’s ruling.


Notes and Questions


1.     In Barlett, the Supreme Court of Washington basically said that times have changed, and the engineering problems of 1928 are not clearly the same as they were in 1968.  Therefore, it ruled that evidence should be presented in regard to whether extra-safe guard rails were more practical than they used to be.

2.     It seems as though the defendant could be liable if it would have been practical to construct the track other than the way it was, and if the defendants could have foreseen a result such as the one that occurred.

3.     The court should promote the outcome that is the most socially beneficial.  The reasonable course of action is to prevent harm to persons, and in particular, as many persons as possible.  The defendant may be subject to liability either way, but we want to set things up so that the defendant is subject to less liability if he does less harm.

4.     I don’t know what the book meant by “intestate”, but I think it was a typo.  Unless that means someone else will be killed, I think the court needs to protect the interest of the trucker in defending his own life.  He may still be found liable for the injury of the plaintiff’s whatever, but then again, he may not be found to be negligent.


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