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Published: January 25, 2010
By Anna Vitale
Special to Missouri Lawyers Weekly
Wrong road signage and photos taken with a cellphone were critical plaintiffs’ evidence in the case of man who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident.
Richard Alumbaugh recovered $628,814 from a motorist’s insurance and the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission during a one-day arbitration hearing in Jasper County.
On Aug. 26, 2006, Richard Alumbaugh was eastbound on Highway F during a motorcycle ride with two friends. He rode the lead bike, but he was unfamiliar with the route he and his friends were taking.
He approached an S-shaped curve on the highway, or “reverse turn” as defined by the MHTC. As Alumbaugh approached, the road curved right then sharply left, after a short connecting strip.
MHTC guidelines indicate the road requires a reverse turn sign with a speed advisory.
At the time, a sign indicating a single curve was 360 feet past the first curve. Another sign indicated the second curve a bit farther down the road, but it was obstructed by vegetation. Neither the first sign nor the second provided a speed advisory. The design speed for the second curve is 25 mph.
The speed limit on Highway F is 55 mph. Alumbaugh said he believed he was traveling between 40 and 45 mph before he entered the second curve. The plaintiffs’ accident reconstructionists calculated his speed to be about 40 mph. While Alumbaugh was in the apex of the second curve, he encountered a westbound Ford 350 pickup truck that he contended was in his lane. When Alumbaugh saw the truck, he applied his front and back brakes. The brakes locked up, and Alumbaugh skidded straight instead of turning with the curve.
His bike struck the truck and flew 37 feet before hitting the ground at about 30 mph and coming to rest on the shoulder of the westbound lane, according to the accident report.
Alumbaugh was unable to give a statement to the Missouri Highway Patrol at the scene. The pickup driver said Alumbaugh had been traveling too fast for the curve, had skidded over the centerline and had come into the westbound lane and hit the pickup. The highway patrol diagram of the accident showed skid marks on the centerline and yaw marks in the westbound lane. Yaw marks are left on the roadway when a tire spins after the driver turns the wheel quickly to avoid a road obstruction. The patrol took no photos of the scene.
Neither of Alumbaugh’s friends saw the wreck. After the wreck, however, one used his cellphone to take pictures of the scene. Those pictures showed that the skid marks from Alumbaugh’s bike did not cross the centerline but stopped several feet before, which, the plaintiff contended, completely discredited the highway patrol’s version of the wreck. Based on the pictures, the plaintiffs’ accident reconstructionist testified that the pickup was over the centerline at the time of the wreck.
Alumbaugh lost his right leg in the wreck. Farmer’s Insurance Co. insured the pickup driver and initially refused to settle. The company paid its policy limits of $250,000 before trial, however, and the plaintiffs proceeded to arbitrate against MHTC.
A panel of three arbitrators found the damages to be $1.2 million and found the state 50 percent at fault. The state paid its statutory cap of $378,814, bringing the total recovery to $628,814.
An accurate reverse turn sign with a speed advisory has been installed at the site of the crash.
Defense attorney Terri Parker declined to comment.