The Georgia Department of Transportation recently settled a wrongful death claim by agreeing to pay the Plaintiff $600,000.00 for the death of his wife. The Georgia DOT delayed resolution for several years and finally agreed to pay the settlement just before trial in Fulton County, Georgia. The claims in this case, Heller v. DOT, which was pending in Fulton County State Court, involved allegations that the Georgia DOT had allowed trees to grow up too closely to the roadway, presenting a deathly hazard for any member of the motoring public who, for whatever reason, happened to leave the roadway. This is what happened to the taxi Mrs. Heller was a passenger in when it hydroplaned during a rainstorm, causing the cabdriver to lose control of his vehicle and crash into a tree, killing Mrs. Heller.
Georgia DOT has a mandatory clear zone requirement, as set forth in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Roadside Design Guide, which Georgia has officially adopted. DOT cut down the trees by the side of I-85 in 2006 and has a larger tree-clearance program, DOT spokesperson David Spear said. “The principal concern relative to the DOT in this issue was the tree,” Spear said. “Relative to drainage and slope design we’ve not made any changes, nor are any warranted.”
The Georgia DOT even apologized to Mr. Heller for the death of his wife, an extremely rare gesture by the DOT.
There is no question that the concept of a “clear zone” adjacent to a road way is for enhancing the safety of the motoring public. It is also readily apparent, from the Heller litigation, that the DOT ignores these safety enhancements that are in place to save the lives of Georgia citizens. It is also obvious that until a courageous plaintiff and a trial lawyer willing to fight for what is right takes the Georgia DOT all the way to the mat, i.e., a jury trial, the DOT will continue to refuse to accept responsibility for their role in causing highway deaths.