COUNTIES ‑- LIABILITY FOR DAMAGES RESULTING FROM REMOVAL OF STOP SIGNS
1. County could be held liable for damages resulting from the removal of stop signs deemed unnecessary by county officials.
2. An avoidance of liability for the removal of stop signs will be dependent upon the usual defenses to negligence, no procedure for avoidance of liability can be recommended except the giving of adequate warning to highway users.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
December 17, 1954
Honorable Charles O. Carroll
Seattle, Washington Cite as: AGO 53-55 No. 366
In your letter received November 17, 1954, you asked for the opinion of this office on questions submitted to you by D. L. Evans, King County road engineer, regarding the removal of stop signs on county roads. The following issues were presented:
(1) Is the county liable for an accident wholly or partly caused by the removal by the county of an existing stop sign?
(2) What steps can be taken to effect removal and avoid liability for accidents resulting from such removal?
It is our opinion that the county may be liable for accidents resulting from the removal of stop signs from county roads, (a) where it can be shown that by such removal the officials created a foreseeable hazard to persons using the road, and (b) where the duty to maintain such signs is imposed by statute. [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] There are no set procedures that can be followed to effect such removal and avoid liability, but it will depend upon the factual situation in each case.
A traffic survey in King County has disclosed that there are numerous unnecessary stop signs now being used. The county is concerned over the possible results if they should remove such signs.
A county is not an insurer of the safety of travelers upon its highways, but it must exercise reasonable care to see that they are maintained in a safe condition for ordinary travel. Fritch v. King County, 4 Wn. (2d) 87. This duty of reasonable care includes the duty of giving adequate warning of dangerous conditions of which it has notice.
The liability for the removal of stop signs may be predicated upon a breach of duty on the part of the county. The duty may be either (1) a general duty to protect persons from unreasonable risk of harm or (2) a duty imposed by statute.
In the first instance, the county must use such reasonable care in the removal of existing stop signs that they do not create an unreasonable risk of harm to users of the road. The theory has often been propounded that the removal of an existing sign constitutes a trap. Barber v. Seattle, 182 Wash. 672. In this situation, however, ordinary negligence rules will still apply. Therefore, without the application of statutory requirements it is a factual problem in each case whether the county by removal of such signs would breach its duty to give adequate warning of dangerous conditions of which it has notice.
In regard to statutory duties, in the case of Lyle v. Fiorito, 187 Wash. 537, 60 P. (2d) 709 (1936), the court held that under RRS §§ 6362-40 and 6308-3 (now repealed) it is the duty of the county to place and maintain in position the arterial warnings and stop signs, and that a motorist has a right to assume that the county has done its duty, and that other drivers would accord him the right of way to which he was entitled. When the legislature repealed these acts in 1937, it enacted RCW 36.86.040, which provides as follows:
[[Orig. Op. Page 3]]
"The board shall erect and maintain upon the county roads such suitable and proper signs, signals, signboards, and guideposts and appropriate stop, caution, warning, restrictive, and directional signs and markings as it deems necessary or as may be required by law. All such markings shall be in accordance with the uniform state standard of color, design, erection, and location adopted and designated by the director."
This provision changed the requirement from a duty to establish signs"where practicable" as designated in RRS § 6308-3 to "as it deems necessary or as may be required by law." Bradshaw v. Seattle, 43 Wn. (2d) 760, construing a similar requirement relating to the duty of cities, held that where the statute requires that the local authorities "place and maintain such traffic devices upon public highways under their jurisdictionas they may deem necessary" (§ 53, chapter 53, Laws of 1937) it is mandatory and any failure to do so will cause liability for any accident thereby created. The court, however, held that where the statute required such devices "as may be necessary" it is not mandatory and the city is not liable. It should be pointed out here, that the Bradshaw case,supra, and Phinney v. Seattle, 34 Wn. (2d) 330, cited by the court in theBradshaw case, were attempts to define an exception to the governmental immunity of a city and have no application to the county problem. SeeKilbourn v. Seattle, 43 Wn. (2d) 373. Thus it would appear that there is a danger the court may hold in accord with thePhinney case that there is a statutory duty requiring counties to erect and maintain stop signs and other signal devices and that a failure to do so will result in liability for the injury caused therefrom.
A recent opinion of this office, AGO 53-55 No. 271 [[to T. A. Durhum, Prosecuting Attorney, Whatcom County on June 14, 1954]], however, indicated that the statute cited does not impose a duty upon the commissioners to erect or maintain stop signs and that there is no other statute which imposes such duty. [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] There is no set procedure for the removal of stop signs so as to absolutely avoid liability. In some instances no precautions need be taken if the sign is entirely unnecessary. In others, a warning sign might be sufficient. In each case the questions should be (1) is there any danger apparent or foreseeable, and (2) what reasonable steps can be taken to offset that danger.
Very truly yours,
EDWARD M. LANE
Assistant Attorney General