The state of Nebraska may have to pay more than $9 million in damages because it failed to repair a faulty traffic-signal system in Schuyler more than eight years ago that led to a serious accident.
The lawyer for the mother of Jacob Wagner, who was severely and permanently injured, said the award ordered by the state Supreme Court Friday is the largest ever involving the state Department of Roads. Department officials would not verify Friday whether that was true, and declined to comment on the state Supreme Court decision.
Attorney General Jon Bruning’s Office, which defended the state in the case and appealed an earlier, district court decision that the state was mostly to blame for the accident, also declined comment. The state lost the appeal in the same high court decision that increased the financial award to Wagner’s mother, Gail Fickle of Schuyler.
Two traffic signals, one for southbound traffic, the other for westbound, each flashed green lights that night in February 1999, and Wagner’s car was struck by a semitrailer.
“The thing that’s so tragic here is, what frame of mind is it in an institution that would allow these complaints to be virtually ignored,” said Doug Peterson, Fickle’s attorney, on Friday. “There’s not a coordinated system … to receive and respond to citizen complaints” about signals, he added.
Wagner is expected to live in a care facility the rest of his life with brain and visual damage as well as other impairments.
The Colfax County District Court originally awarded Fickle a little more than $4 million.
Fickle argued to the high court that $3.5 million awarded to cover what could be several decades worth of expenses to take care of her son wasn’t enough. The court agreed, saying that annual costs would be upward of $200,000 a year for the care facility alone and also ruled the $500,000 she was awarded for pain and suffering wasn’t enough.
Wagner was in high school old at the time of the accident, and a doctor testified during district court proceedings he may live into his 60s.
The court did not set a specific amount that should be awarded for pain and suffering but directed the district court to set a more appropriate amount.
“Wagner’s injuries were catastrophic and permanent, and the award of $500,000 for noneconomic damages does not fairly and reasonably compensate him for his pain and suffering,” Judge John Wright wrote in the court’s opinion.
Evidence presented in district court showed the state received several complaints about the signals at the intersection of U.S. Highway 30 and state Highway 15 emitting two green lights. Some of the complaints were lodged several months before the accident.
State officials said in court that they responded to a couple complaints and when workers looked at the signals, they appeared to be working. Peterson faulted the state for not prying into the mechanical workings of the signals after the complaints.
In its appeal to the state Supreme Court, the state argued that the complaints were lodged too long before the accident to make it liable. The state also argued that since no notice of the signals malfunctioning was received the day of the accident, it had no opportunity to correct the problem.
“It is clear the state had notice on numerous occasions prior to that date that the traffic signal in question was malfunctioning,” said the opinion from the court.
“An attempt to correct the malfunction does not exempt the state from liability,” it said. “The state failed to repair the defective signal.”
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