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Birch v. Township of Drummer





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Ford County; the Hon. William M. Roberts, Judge, presiding.


The plaintiff, Patricia L. Birch, brought this negligence action as executrix of the estate of Charles Birch against the township of Drummer and its highway commissioner, Robert Bell. The plaintiff alleged the defendants had been negligent in failing to warn the decedent of a dangerous condition of their roadway, but a jury returned a verdict in the defendants' favor. On appeal, the plaintiff contends: (1) The jury's verdict is not supported by the evidence; (2) the trial court erred in instructing the jury under section 11-601(a) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 95 1/2, par. 11-601(a)); (3) the trial court erred in admitting an inventory of township road signs; and (4) juror misconduct requires reversal.

This case involves an almost head-on collision between automobiles driven by Charles Birch and George Kath. Birch died as a result of injuries received in the accident. The accident occurred on Road 550 North near its intersection with Road 200 East in Ford County. At trial, Kath testified he had driven from Bloomington to Paxton along Road 550 North in the morning of August 21, 1980. At about 8 p.m., he was returning to Bloomington along the same route. Traffic was light, the road was dry, and the weather was clear. Kath did not need his headlights. He was driving at 50 to 55 miles per hour. Kath saw a car heading directly at him just seconds before his car collided with it. He estimated the distance between the cars to be 150 to 200 feet at that point. Kath recalled driving up a slight hill just before the collision. When he saw the other car, Kath applied his brakes and steered right so that his right tires were off the road. Kath recalled seeing an intersection when he stepped on the brake. He did not remember seeing any signs along the road warning of the intersection. Kath also did not recall a jog in the road, nor was he expecting one. Kath could not estimate the speed of the other car, nor could he tell whether it had slowed prior to the accident.

Vail Moore, a civil engineer, prepared a plan and profile of the collision site. He testified the crest of a hill was 50 feet west of the intersection, which was about nine inches lower. Road 550 North was 19 feet wide except for 60 to 65 feet around the intersection, where it was slightly wider. The center of Road 550 North moved nine feet to the south over a distance of 125 feet. This "jog" in the road centered on the intersection. Over the 125 feet, there was a change in elevation of about three feet.

Deputy Sheriff Thomas Duffy was the first officer to arrive at the accident scene. Duffy saw Kath's car sitting in a ditch about two to three feet from the edge of the road. The decedent's car was in the eastbound lane facing west. Duffy determined the point of impact to be in the westbound lane. Duffy also noticed 35- to 40-foot skid marks from the decedent's car, which had been heading east. Kath's car, which had been heading west, left about 20-foot skid marks. In Duffy's opinion, both drivers were in their proper lane of travel before they began to brake. Duffy did not make an accident report because another officer had been dispatched to do so. Duffy stated he made no notes of his investigation and filed no report concerning it. Duffy also identified photographs taken by a newspaper reporter of the scene that evening.

Defendant Bell testified he had authority to request new road signs to be installed. Bell testified there were standard intersection signs 750 feet from each side of the intersection. Nothing about those signs would indicate anything other than a straight-through intersection. The eastbound driver would also see a hill sign before he came to the hill. Bell testified a sign warning of the jog would cost about $40. Bell believed 55 miles per hour was a safe speed to travel through the intersection. He, however, admitted a test had been performed which showed 45 miles per hour was the safe speed. He also stated the eastbound driver would not see the jog in the road until he was 50 to 60 feet from it.

John Baerwald, a doctor of philosophy with specialization in civil and traffic engineering, testified as an expert witness for the plaintiff. Baerwald testified stopping sight distance refers to the distance necessary for a driver to see a six-inch object on the pavement ahead of him and be able to stop before hitting it. On Road 550 North, Baerwald testified the stopping sight distance was 200 feet. According to standards adopted in Illinois, the safe speed for such a distance is 30 miles per hour. For a speed of 55 miles per hour, the safe stopping sight distance is 425 feet.

In Baerwald's opinion, Road 550 North was inadequately signed as of the time of the crash. First, an advisory speed limit of 30 miles per hour should have been posted around the intersection. Also, the intersection sign posted would not have indicated the offset in the road and would have misled motorists. Finally, Chevron signs on each side of the intersection should have been posted to direct the motorist to move to the right.

Baerwald testified the jog in the intersection in close proximity to the crest of the hill created a possibly dangerous situation. He was of the opinion that the inadequate signing had contributed to the crash. Baerwald testified that drivers have a reaction time between 1 and 2 1/2 seconds. He also testified a car travels about 73 feet per second at 50 miles per hour.

The plaintiff testified her husband drove regularly from Ludlow to Bloomington and back again for about one year. He normally drove on Route 9, but she knew Route 9 had been closed prior to her husband's death. She did not know how many times her husband had driven on Road 550 North.

Deputy Sheriff Andrew Miller had investigated the accident and had prepared an accident report. Prior to becoming a deputy sheriff, Miller had been an assistant superintendent of highways for Ford County for 12 years. Miller testified the area near the collision was generally hilly. He knew of no prior accidents near that intersection. Miller measured skid marks from the westbound vehicle, which were 36 feet long. He looked for but did not see any skid marks from the eastbound vehicle. On cross-examination, he testified that a photograph taken of the accident scene showed what appeared to be skid marks made by the eastbound vehicle. Those marks came across the road, rather than going straight down the road. Miller was of the opinion that both vehicles were out of their lanes of traffic at the point of impact. The point of impact was four feet from the edge of the road in the westbound lane, but part of the westbound car would have also been over the center line.

Charles Danner, a civil engineer, testified as an expert witness on the defendant's behalf. Danner had also prepared a plan and profile of the accident site. Danner testified a car could see an oncoming vehicle from about 360 feet away. The first thing visible would be everything on a standard automobile above the driver's eyes, which are normally three feet nine inches above the ground. Danner calculated the stopping sight distance to be 250 feet on Road 550 North. He testified the recommended speed for that distance is between 35 and 45 miles per hour. For 55 miles per hour, a stopping sight distance of 400 feet is recommended. Danner testified that if the jog was a contributing factor to the accident at all, "it would be a very, very minor one."

John Mitchell, a civil engineer, was superintendent of highways for Ford County. Mitchell had never heard of any accidents at that intersection. Mitchell testified he relied on the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways issued by the State's Department of Transportation. The manual stated warning signs should be kept at a minimum because too many signs breed disrespect for the signs. The manual also stated a special sign should not be used when a standard one will serve the purpose. Mitchell testified the special sign recommended by Baerwald for the intersection would not have been appropriate because it indicated a sharp turn in the intersection, whereas Road 550 North was a gentle curve through the intersection. Mitchell testified the standard crossroad sign would be appropriate. The manual also indicated intersection signs were permissive or advisory rather than mandatory.

Mitchell testified Road 550 North was a township road used primarily for local traffic. In 1973, the road had a traffic count of 150 cars per day, and in 1980, it was 175 cars per day. Mitchell testified Route 9 had been closed during most of the summer of 1980. In Mitchell's opinion, the existing signs were adequate for the conditions at the intersection. Mitchell also testified he had hired independent engineers to do a study of township roads in Ford County prior to August 21, 1980. Mitchell produced a report and identified it as being prepared by Jerry Lacey and Associates, identified as to ...

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