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DOT should have cleared ditch that caused wreck, COA rules

Bill Cresenzo//March 23, 2021

DOT should have cleared ditch that caused wreck, COA rules

Bill Cresenzo//March 23, 2021


The North Carolina Department of Transportation had proper notice that a ditch needed to be cleared before water run-off created the black ice that caused a wreck, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled.

Barbara Sigler was driving on a day in which the temperature was below freezing and there had been no precipitation. As she drove through a curve, another driver, approaching from the opposite direction, hit black ice and spun out of control into her car, causing significant injuries to Sigler and her passenger, Mattie Hicks.

The water that froze on the road came from a ditch that was filled with debris and not properly cleared, causing the water to run off onto the road. Sigler and Hicks sued the property owners, who added the DOT as a third-party, claiming that the ditch was full of debris because the DOT failed to clear it, even though the DOT had received reports that it needed maintenance. 

A jury found the DOT liable for negligence. The DOT requested a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the trial court denied. The DOT appealed, contending that it didn’t have proper notice that the ditch needed to be maintained and there was no evidence as to how long it had been filled. In a March 2 opinion written by Judge Hunter Murphy, the Court of Appeals disagreed.

“There was sufficient circumstantial evidence to show the North Carolina Department of Transportation had constructive notice of a defective condition and failed to exercise due diligence to discover and remedy the defective condition, and thus breached its duty to maintain Highway 56 prior to the accident at issue,” Murphy wrote. “Accordingly, the trial court did not err by denying NCDOT’s motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”

Maintenance is required when ditches become 50 percent filled in order to ensure they can effectively collect and disperse surface water. The plaintiffs presented “more than a scintilla of evidence” of a violation of those guidelines, and there were multiple witnesses who testified to seeing the ditch completely filled in shortly after the accident, Murphy wrote.

“This evidence shows the ditch was in violation of NCDOT guidelines for at least six months,” Murphy wrote. “This six-month frame was sufficient to satisfy plaintiffs’ burden on a motion for directed verdict and was properly submitted to the jury.”

Sanford Thompson of Raleigh represented the plaintiffs. 

“I think the standards that the DOT has are very clear for maintenance, and the evidence showed that the condition of the ditch was not in compliance with their maintenance policies,” Thompson said.

The Department of Justice represented the DOT. A spokeswoman for DOJ said the office had no comment on the ruling. 

The 15-page opinion is Hicks v. KMD Investment Solutions, et al. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-011-21). The full text of the opinion can be found online at

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw


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