The Kansas Supreme Court released the following published decision on March 16, 2018:
The following decision is from a case the Supreme Court heard during its October 3, 2017, special session at Emporia State University.
Appeal No. 114,705: Rochelle Patterson v. Cowley County
The Supreme Court rejected claims against Bolton Township and Cowley County. The claims alleged they should have installed traffic control devices on a rural road that abruptly ends at a riverbank, where two people drowned when their vehicle drove off the road and flipped end-over-end into the river. The court said the township did not owe any legal duty under state law to provide the devices and determined the county was immune from the lawsuit.Kansas Court of Appeals decisions released.
Jason Patterson and Cortney Brewer drowned on November 19, 2010, when their vehicle drove off a rural roadway into the Arkansas River in the Kaw Wildlife Area in Cowley County. Their families sued the township, county, and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, claiming a failure to provide adequate warnings, signs, and barriers on the road. The district court granted the defendants partial summary judgment before trial. The families appealed the rulings involving the township and county, and the county appealed the rulings involving itself.
In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Dan Biles, the court held the township had no legal duty to place traffic control devices along the road where the accident occurred.
"State law specifies the entities authorized to install traffic control devices, and the Township is not among them," Biles wrote.
The court also ruled the county had no legal duty to conduct an engineering study as claimed by the families, and then held that the county's decisions regarding signage were discretionary according to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is adopted by the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation under state law to regulate road signs and warnings. The court then noted the Kansas Tort Claims Act shields governmental entities like the county from lawsuits over their discretionary decisions.
Under the manual, the court said, the county was free not to consider whether signs should be erected along the roadway.
"This is the hallmark of a discretionary function when the negligence alleged is not erecting a particular traffic control device," the court said.
The roadway was opened by the county in 1873. In 1917, it was reclassified as a township road. In 1955, the county designated a portion, now known as 322nd Road, as a county road. It intersects with 111th Road about one mile west of the river and continues east for about three quarters of a mile. The remaining quarter mile to the river is a township road. The portion known as 322nd Road is paved, while the quarter-mile township road is not. The unpaved township road runs through the Kaw Wildlife Area, which is owned by the federal government and operated as a wildlife area by Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. There was evidence the township road actually ends about 300 feet before the river.