- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a $7.8 million judgment against the state over a 2007 fatal accident on Interstate 10, ruling Friday that a defense against lawsuits over allegedly unsafe highways didn’t apply because motorists weren’t warned about possible danger from the lack of a median barrier.

Arizona law provides a legal shield called an “affirmative defense” to enable the state and its local governments to fend off lawsuits if they can prove roadways met accepted standards when they were built.

Without the shield, public entities would either have to spend large amounts of money to continuously update roadways “or risk sweeping liability exposure,” Justice Ann A. Scott Timmer wrote for the court.

However, a trial judge was correct in the 2007 accident case to rule that the state couldn’t use the defense because the state didn’t meet the law’s requirement to warn the public of unreasonable dangerous hazards, the state high court ruled.

The case stems from the deaths of two people in a vehicle that collided with another vehicle that crossed the median on a stretch of Interstate 10 south of Phoenix built in 1967.

Both sides in the lawsuit agreed that highway met standards in place at the time when it was built.

However, lawyers for the woman whose husband and daughter were killed argued that the state couldn’t claim the defense because the highway was unsafe under traffic and other conditions that had changed over the 40 years after the highway was built.

The justices rejected that argument, saying the defense allowed by the law hinged on showing that roadways met standards in effect at the time of design or construction.

That still left, however, the law’s requirement for warnings of current “unreasonably dangerous hazards,” but there was no warning and trial jurors heard testimony that the lack of a median was a hazard, the Supreme Court said.

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