Proving Liability In “Red Light” Cases

Most lawyers who regularly handle car and truck accident injury cases are used to filing lawsuits in cases that happen at intersections controlled by traffic lights. These cases just seem to settle less often than other kinds of traffic accident cases.

I believe this is because these cases present more chances for insurance companies (and later, defense attorneys) to find a reason not to pay the claim. First, I think people are more likely to be seriously injured in intersection cases because at least one of the vehicles involved is moving at full speed. So there is likely to be more grist for a dispute about the value of the Plaintiff’s damages claim. Second, these cases lend themselves to disputes over liability- namely, who had the right of way. This is great for the defense because a liability dispute gives them a chance to beat the claim entirely.

In these cases, it can be nearly impossible to prove liability without a witness, and sometimes can be problematic even when there is a witness. You may get lucky, and find that the police located a bystander witness who was traveling in the same direction as the plaintiff or defendant, and can testify as to the color of the light for that person.

Seems simple, right? Not always. What if the witness was on a cross street, and could only see her light, but not the lights that were facing either of the parties? What if there is no witness, and the defendant claims that she had the right of way because she turned left on a green turn arrow instead of a green ball where she would have had to yield the right of way? What if one or all of the signals at an intersection isn’t timed, but are instead controlled by a motion sensor?

In these kinds of cases, you need to be able to prove exactly what kind of signals were present, and what colors they would have been at different times. By way of illustration, if your witness on a cross street was looking at a particular color light, can that information be used to figure out what color the light facing the defendant was?

The only way to know is to obtain the sequencing information for the traffic control signals at the intersection. This information is readily available if you know where to look. First, find out if the road at issue is maintained by the state or county. In Maryland, this is easy to figure out. If the road has a state route number, the information you need can be obtained from the State Highway Administration. If not, each county has a traffic office that can usually provide the information you need.

Send a letter and request a copy of the sequencing information for the intersection. Make sure you specify in your request what time period you need the information for, since traffic light sequencing often changes based on traffic patterns and road usage. What I do is send a copy of the police report along with my request, so the traffic office has as much information about the intersection as I do.

When you receive the sequencing information, you most likely will not be able to figure out what it means because you will look at a chart that simply has the lights identified along with a series of phase numbers and timing intervals. OK. So to make sense of this you will need to have the government’s traffic engineer translate the timing chart for you. Usually, this is the person whose name was on the letter accompanying the sequencing information. But don’t pick up that phone just yet. For the engineer’s explanation to make any sense, you need to know what the intersection looks like and where the lights were located. If you have personal familiarity with the location, great, you are all set. If not, what I often do is pull up an aerial view of the intersection on Google Earth. Now I am ready to call the traffic engineer. Using the photo and the sequencing chart, the engineer can explain to me exactly which lights would be activated at particular times. Now I can hopefully use that witness on the cross street, in conjunction with the testimony of the traffic engineer, to show that the defendant had to have had a red light, or whatever else wins my case on liability.

Trust me, the defense is hoping that they can win the case by pointing out on cross that your witness couldn’t actually see the light that mattered, and then arguing you have failed to meet your burden on proving liability. Don’t let them get away with this. Close that door with the traffic engineer’s testimony and the sequencing chart and go win your case!