Washington State Court: Cities Can Be Sued When Drunk Drivers Hit Poles

| by Jonathan Wolfe
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The Washington State Supreme Court ruled today that drunk drivers don’t hit telephone poles because they are too drunk, but because the poles are too close to the road.

The court made the ruling while analyzing the case of Jennifer Wilbur. Wilbur was driving her car with a .014 BAC level - nearly twice the legal limit – when she slammed into a telephone poll on the side of the road. Her passenger, Nathan Lowman, was left with a permanently disabled arm. Wilbur pleaded guilty to vehicular assault, while Lowman filed a negligence claim against her.

But Lowman didn’t only file a claim against Wilbur. He filed one against Puget Sound Energy and Skagit County as well. In his claim, he said that pole wasn’t as far away from the road as it should have been. Turns out Lowman was right.

Pole placement standards for the company say poles have to be placed at least 10 feet away from the road. The pole Wilbur hit was only 4.47 feet from the road.

In an 8-1 vote, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the misplacement of the pole can be considered the legal cause for Lowman’s injury.

"Whatever the reasons for a car's departure from a roadway, as a matter of policy we reject the notion that a negligently placed utility pole cannot be the legal cause of resulting injury," Justice Debra Stephens wrote.

The lone dissenting judge, Justice Jim Johnson, wrote that the court’s decision was sticking taxpayers with the bill for Wilbur’s criminal driving activity.

The court ruled that in addition to Lowman, Wilbur now has the right to sue Puget Sound Energy for the wrongly placed pole as well.

But Wilbur, perhaps realizing that she was drunk enough to drive five feet off the road in the first place, does not appear to be suing at this time.

Sources: KIROTV, Gawker