Tractor trailers have been transporting our goods across these roads for years. In 1904, there were roughly 700 of these large vehicles in the United States. Now they number in the millions. The nation’s roadways have been around far longer than these large trucks and the roads haven’t always been built to accommodate them.
One particular bridge in Durham, North Carolina has become infamous for its unaccommodating nature. It has stood for over 100 years at Gregson St. and Peabody St. in downtown. Known to locals as “the can opener,” it stands exactly 11 foot, 8 inches tall, while its victims are usually about 13 feet.
About once a month, large trucks attempt to take on the bridge and are visibly damaged. http://www.11foot8.com is a website run by local businessmen who have done extensive documentation and coverage of each and every unfortunate accident the bridge has claimed since 2009 – some of them causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage and, potentially, medical bills. Many people might ask; who’s responsible for these accidents?
Norfolk Southern Railroad owns the trestle and the tracks for use by their trains, while the road that runs beneath the trestle is “owned” and operated by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
North Carolina General Statute § 160A–297 ensures that a city or municipal government (like the City of Durham) is not legally responsible for roads and bridges that are part of the state highway system, such as the crossing at Gregson and Peabody. A city is immune even when it is actually responsible for construction and maintenance under a contract with NCDOT. Colombo v. Dorrity, 115 N.C. App. 81, 86 (N.C. Ct. App. 1994). In Wilkerson v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 151 N.C. App. 332 (N.C. Ct. App. 2002), the Court of Appeals held that Durham was immune from liability when a truck was hit at another Norfolk Southern Railroad crossing that was part of the state highway system. NCDOT would not be liable where the city was responsible for construction and maintenance because it is only liable for the negligence of its own employees under the North Carolina Tort Claims Act. Likewise, Norfolk Southern Railroad is not responsible because there seems to be no “legal” minimum for bridge clearance. Indeed, several other low clearance bridges exist across the country, not just ones owned by railroad companies.
In Smith v. N.C. DOT, 156 N.C. App. 92 (N.C. Ct. App. 2003), the Court of Appeals held that NCDOT could be held liable when a truck got stuck in a railroad underpass where it failed to erect warning signs despite knowing that the underpass was dangerously low. But the City of Durham has done their part by posting “low clearance” warning signs for 3 blocks leading up to the crossing at Gregson and Peabody, as well as a flashing light that is activated when the vehicle crossing in front of it exceeds the clearance level of 11 foot 8 inches.
Ultimately, the only person at fault in a situation like this is the driver. And while a semi-truck driver may have insurance that will help pay for the damages resulting from such crashes, rental truck drivers may not be so lucky. Most rental truck companies, like Penske and U-Haul, have special provisions in their rental truck insurance agreement that waives protection against overhead and roof damage.
A truck driver who attempts to take on the bridge and loses may be liable if a passenger, another vehicle or pedestrian is injured or damaged from such an accident. If you’re the victim in such an accident, don’t be afraid to contact an attorney. Most consultations are free of charge.