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Wrongful Death From Malfunctioning Traffic Lights

Since caveman struck flint to produce fire, technology has driven societal progress. Modern computers and phones each solve hundreds of billions of addition and multiplication problems every second with goals of easing and enriching our lives. As our society absorbs modern technologies, we become dependent on them. When they fail, whether due to a bug, a hacker, or a power outage, we can lose our productivity, our health, or even our lives. One particularly problematic technological failure is a traffic light malfunction. During a typical traffic light malfunction, the malfunctioning lights will blink or simply go blank, letting drivers know that they should treat the intersection as a four-way stop. By Florida law, everyone approaching the intersection comes to a complete stop before proceeding in the order in which they arrived. If they arrived at the same time, they’ll proceed one-at-a-time in a clockwise rotation.

Unfortunately, many drivers fail to properly react to a malfunctioning traffic light. In South Florida, James Calvert drove into an intersection with a malfunctioning traffic light without stopping. After another car cleared his view of the crosswalk, he realized to late that he would collide with the twelve-year-old bicyclist Brandon Levy. Brandon died due to the crash. His parents knew they could file a wrongful death lawsuit on his behalf. The question was who to sue: was Brandon’s death Calvert’s (the driver’s) fault, for incorrectly handling the malfunctioning traffic light, or FPL’s (the utility’s) fault, for failing to provide electricity to the traffic light?

Florida’s Fourth DCA ruled that it was Calvert’s fault, not FPL’s. While FPL had agreed to supply electricity to the traffic light in its agreement with the county, it had not agreed to any liability resulting from failure to supply the electricity. Furthermore, the traffic light malfunction was not the proximate cause of Brandon’s death. This means that FPL could not have foreseen Calvert’s failure to treat the malfunctioning light as a four-way stop, so they shouldn’t be pointed to as the cause of Brandon’s death. Calvert and Mrs. Levy reached a settlement agreement, meaning Calvert paid Mr. and Mrs. Levy a set amount of money in lieu of continuing in court to have a jury determine that amount of money.

Utility companies can’t always get off the hook when their underperformance causes injury or death. Near Jacksonville, Larry Ganas struck the fourteen-year-old Dante Johnson with a truck. Dante was walking to his school bus stop, but the streetlight overhead was out, so Ganas couldn’t see him. Clay Electric Cooperative had contracted with the Jacksonville Electric Authority to perform regular maintenance on the streetlight. The streetlight had been out for years, so Clay Electric had clearly failed to hold up its end of the contract. Furthermore, Clay Electric could have foreseen that its negligence could cause drivers to run over proximate pedestrians, so Clay Electric proximately caused Dante’s death. Thus, Florida’s Fourth DCA ruled that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson could sue Clay Electric for their son’s death.

There are two key differences between these two cases. First, Clay Electric was the proximate cause of Dante’s death, while FPL was not the proximate cause of Brandon’s death. Second, Clay Electric had specifically agreed to be held responsible for the maintenance of the streetlights, while FPL had merely agreed to provide the traffic lights with electricity — not to guarantee their function. One of the most fundamental questions in any personal injury case is, “Who should I sue?” Experienced personal injury legal groups, like the King Law Firm, can provide expert answers to this question and others. If you or a loved one has recently been injured or passed away in part due to the negligence of another, contact the King Law Firm for a free consultation.

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