Liability for Highway Obstructions in Texas Law

Michael GrossmanJanuary 10, 2017 7 minutes

We have noticed a lot of news reports lately about motorists who for one reason or another collide with the rear of a tractor-trailer. Fault in these instances is always case-specific. Sometimes it falls on the passenger vehicle's driver; in other instances, fault lies with the trucker. There are even accidents where inclement weather or road conditions are the cause and those aren't entirely within either party's control. When a big-rig is stopped dead in a lane of traffic while its driver patronizes a nearby business, though, it's easier to identify a starting point for trouble.

Case in point: On January 5th, officers with the Texarkana Texas Police Department were dispatched to investigate a fatal vehicular collision in the 1600 block of North Bishop Street. According to reports, a vehicle driven by 32-year-old Marvin Adams, Jr. rear-ended a log truck that was re-entering the roadway after it had temporarily stopped at a local business. The truck driver, 71-year-old Bill Stephens, had parked the log truck in the street's outside lane to quickly visit a nearby establishment. Adams was killed by the force of the collision between his 2008 Ford F150 pickup and the back of the log truck.

When most people read about a crash like this, they immediately blame the driver who rear-ended the other vehicle. What is often overlooked in this kind of accident is the issue of highway obstruction. Simply put, sometimes it is the driver who is rear-ended who is at fault because they stopped their vehicle in a dangerous location and didn't do enough to warn other drivers of the hazard in their path.

Travel Lanes Are Not for Stationary Vehicles.

It's not just my opinion: As a rule, active roadway lanes are not meant to be parked on, temporarily or otherwise. They are designed for moving traffic. Obviously not every obstruction is intentional or even avoidable; cars can break down in moving lanes, and crashes don't typically occur in ideal, out-of-the-way spots. In such events, though, the lanes are cleared as quickly as possible, and obstructions are relocated to the highway's shoulders so that traffic can continued unhindered. This behavior is generally preferable over impeding the passage of other vehicles by stopping in the road itself.

Under the Texas Penal Code, specifically Section 42.03:

A person commits an offense if, without legal privilege or authority, he intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly...obstructs a highway, street, sidewalk, railway, waterway, elevator, aisle, hallway, entrance, or exit to which the public or a substantial group of the public has access, or any other place used for the passage of persons, vehicles, or conveyances, regardless of the means of creating the obstruction and whether the obstruction arises from his acts alone or from his acts and the acts of others.

That's a long-winded way of saying that Texans don't have some inherent right to keep others from where they are going. Part of the reason we don't have that right is of course that it creates inconveniences, congests traffic, and restricts the rights of others to use and move freely in public spaces. Another reason for such a law is that it is inherently dangerous to stop wherever one pleases. At our law firm, we've seen this point made time and time again, often with tragic consequences. We've worked on numerous cases where vehicles collided with illegally parked 18-wheelers. On the off-chance a driver who collides with the back of an 18-wheeler survives, their injuries are often horrific.

That notion may not specifically be imparted during standard driver-training education; it has been quite some time since I impatiently sat through the instruction videos in an effort to get my license, so I'm not positive. However, if it's never formally taught during Driver's Ed., it's still a concept that very quickly becomes part of a motorist's consciousness: Blocked roads are unsafe and they slow everyone down. Nobody is a fan of being reduced to a crawl on their way to places they need or want to be, much less of having to quickly redirect a vehicle around an obstruction. Be it for personal safety, for time considerations, in obedience to the law, or in rare instances of pure individual responsibility, most drivers make at least a modicum of effort to avoid blocking the road. One of the key ways they do that is not to stop in places that would drastically affect the flow of traffic.

As you can see from the above image taken off Google Maps, North Bishop Street is probably not the most heavily-trafficked road in America, but it does serve as an access road to a major highway, which means one would expect that vehicles would be speeding up to and slowing down from significant speeds.

The map is of the 1600 block, though it doesn't pinpoint the location of the collision. Despite its reduced traffic flow, though, Bishop Street still benefits from having clear, unobstructed lanes. Traffic laws are not based around contingencies like "How many other vehicles are around?," "Who's going to witness this?," or "How long might an errand take?" They still apply even on isolated stretches of road, at low-traffic times of day. Justifications along the lines of "I'll just be a minute" are not legally permissible. They are fairly clear that barring certain extenuating circumstances, the road--particularly the highway--is not to be blocked by stationary vehicles.

Texas Transportation Code Rules for Stopped Vehicles

Of course, rules against "Obstruction of Highways or Other Passageways" are not ironclad in every situation. The Texas Transportation Code does have rules for when it is permissible for vehicles to stop in the roadway. According to the first section of of TTC § 545.301, which outlines the rules of "Stopping, Standing, and Parking Outside of a Business or Residence District:"

(a) An operator may not stop, park, or leave standing an attended or unattended vehicle on the main traveled part of a highway outside a business or residence district unless:
   (1) stopping, parking, or leaving the vehicle off the main traveled part of the highway is not practicable;
   (2) a width of highway beside the vehicle is unobstructed and open for the passage of other vehicles; and
   (3) the vehicle is in clear view for at least 200 feet in each direction on the highway.

It is possible that one or more of these provisions may apply to the case's particular circumstances. A log truck is hardly a Smart Car; it is not always possible to pull it into certain locations, and the trucker may have found himself unable to safely enter the driveway or parking lot of the business he needed to briefly attend. Furthermore, if the truck was stopped in the outside lane of the road, the left lane would still have been unobstructed for passing per the stipulations of exception 2. As for exception number 3, it could be argued that a long flat stretch of road like North Bishop would grant visibility to approaching drivers for 200 feet, especially with respect to a vehicle as large and unmistakable as a log truck.

Certainly, trucking companies will make arguments such as these to show that their driver isn't at fault. Unfortunately for these companies and their insurers, federal law requires that vehicles who do not have 500 feet of clear visibility to put out triangles or flares when they have stopped in the roadway. It is pretty clear from images of the accident scene that there is both a U-turn lane and the crest of a hill on 500 feet of either side of the truck. This means that there should have been signaling devices out while the vehicle was stopped, no matter how brief the driver assumed the trip would be.

In addition, after completing their stops, drivers that are driving well below the posted speed limit have a duty to keep their hazard lights on until they are back up to highway speeds, in an effort to warn other drivers.

This is part of a larger duty: that when a commercial (or non-commercial) vehicle breaks down or stops in a public roadway, its driver is obligated to alert other motorists that the vehicle is stopped. While the truck was not disabled in this case, the principle still seems applicable; there is no "Five Minutes or Less" rule for a commercial truck parked in a lane of traffic. If stopped, it requires some kind of effort to notify oncoming cars that the truck isn't moving. It's obviously more critical at night, but even in daylight hours, not making any specific effort to indicate to oncoming drivers that a truck isn't going to move belies a measure of negligence on the part of a commercial driver.

To visualize the problem in a different way, let's suppose that instead of a log truck, someone left an object in the road--let's say a piano. A piano certainly has no place in a road, and we can clearly see how whoever would leave one there should be liable for any injuries resulting from a collision with a vehicle. Translate that possibility from "piano" to "disabled car:" even the smallest vehicles on our roads are bigger than a piano. Do we change our expectations just because the obstruction has a driver? Not in the least. The danger is the object blocking the roadway, no matter what it is. Whether someone drops a piano in the middle of lane or stops their car dangerously, they can be liable for any consequences stemming from that decision.

Rear-End Collisions With Trucks Are Sometimes the Truck Driver's Fault

I can't emphasize enough that we're not trying to assign fault in the particular accident involving Marvin Adams, Jr. and the log truck. Rather, we're just showing that the law is not as cut and dried as people sometimes think it is.

Along with "pedestrians always have the right-of-way," "The driver who rear-ends another driver is always at fault," may be one of the most enduring and incorrect myths in personal injury law. The only way to know who is actually at fault in these accidents is with a thorough, independent investigation conducted by a knowledgeable professional.

The problem is that when people hear that someone, even a loved one, rear-ended someone, they assume that nothing can be done. Not only does such thinking deprive families of badly needed compensation for their injuries and loss, it also lets another driver's dangerous actions go unpunished. I read recently that 9 out of 10 people with legitimate personal injury claims never bother to pursue them. While a fair number of those folks may have an ideological aversion to lawsuits, the vast majority are never pursued because people have misconceptions about how the law works.

Highway obstruction is a rarely talked about, but significant problem. When the obstruction is an 80,000 pound vehicle, those problems and the consequences of negligence are magnified. In the end, all of us, whether our vehicles weigh 1 ton or 40 tons, need to be more aware of our surroundings on the road and the dangerous consequences of obstructing highways. Victims need to know that highway obstruction is a crime, and that drivers who block the road can be liable for their bad decisions.