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Foster-Naser v. Aurora County

Supreme Court of South Dakota

January 27, 2016

LYNN FOSTER-NASER, Individually and as Special Administrator of the Estate of TRAVIS J. NASER, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
AURORA COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA, Defendant and Appellee, and DOUGLAS COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA, Defendant

Considered on Briefs November 30, 2015

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OFTHE FIRST JUDICIAL CIRCUITAURORA COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA. THE HONORABLE PATRICK T. SMITH, Judge.

GEORGE F. JOHNSON, STEPHANIE E. POCHOP of Johnson Pochop & Bartling, Gregory, South Dakota, Attorneys for plaintiff and appellant.

DOUGLAS M. DEIBERT of Cadwell, Sanford, Deibert & Garry, LLP, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Attorneys for defendant. and appellee.

WILBUR, Justice. GILBERTSON, Chief Justice, and ZINTER, SEVERSON, and KERN, Justices, concur.

OPINION

Page 506

WILBUR, Justice

[¶1] In this negligence case, the circuit court granted the county summary judgment. It found that no duty existed between the county and the plaintiff as a matter of law. The plaintiff appeals asserting a material issue of fact is in dispute whether the county owed the plaintiff a duty. We affirm.

Background

[¶2] On September 30, 2010, Travis Naser died in a one-vehicle accident while he was the passenger in a vehicle being driven by Lowell Langstraat. The accident occurred after Langstraat drove off the road because he failed to negotiate a " T" intersection at a dead-end road. The dead-end intersects two gravel roads in rural South Dakota. The north-south road, 392nd Avenue, is located in Douglas County. The east-west road, 268th Street, is located in Aurora County. After the accident, Travis's wife, Lynn Foster-Naser, brought suit against Aurora and Douglas counties for wrongful death. This appeal concerns only her suit against Aurora County. Foster-Naser alleged that Aurora County negligently failed to maintain the double-arrow sign on 268th Street. She claimed that had the sign been properly maintained it would have warned Langstraat that the dead-end intersection required a sharp right or left turn.

[¶3] Aurora County moved for summary judgment and asserted that it owed no duty to Foster-Naser to maintain the double-arrow sign. It submitted that because 268th Street is a township road, Aurora Township had the duty to maintain the street. Foster-Naser did not dispute that Aurora Township is the governing body responsible for 268th Street. Instead, it responded that an oral agreement existed between the County and the Township whereby the County agreed to maintain the Township's roads. This oral agreement, Foster-Naser averred, created a duty on the part of the County to maintain the double-arrow sign on 268th Street.

Page 507

[¶4] The circuit court held a hearing on the County's motion for summary judgment. The County conceded that it had entered into an oral agreement with the Township to maintain the Township's roads. The County explained that the agreement had existed for " as long as" Highway Superintendent Roger Konechne could remember. But the County insisted that the Township never hired the County to install, maintain, or repair signage on the Township's roads. The Township only hired the County to blade gravel and plow snow on the Township's roads because the Township did not have the heavy equipment necessary for that type of road maintenance.

[¶5] Foster-Naser disputed that the County merely agreed to plow snow and blade gravel. She directed the circuit court to the County's " Sales History Report" and to Highway Superintendent Konechne's deposition testimony. In the Sales History Report, the County billed the Township for time spent on rock work, back sloping, flood work, shoulder work, disking, spot gravel, blading, snow removal, and replacing a culvert. The Sales History Report also documented that the County sold certain traffic signs to the Township. Konechne testified that he traveled 268th Street as part of the County's duty to maintain the road. Specifically, he remarked that he traveled 268th Street because he " just wanted to make sure we [the County employees] were maintaining it properly." According to Foster-Naser, the Sales History Report and Konechne's testimony created a fact question whether the County assumed responsibility for the Township's statutory duty to maintain the sign on 268th Street.

[¶6] After the hearing, the circuit court issued a memorandum decision and order. It noted that " without question" the Township was responsible for 268th Street and had a statutory duty under SDCL 31-13-1 and -26 to " repair or maintain proper roadway markings or signage." The court further held that SDCL 31-13-1, -26, and -7 gave the Township " explicit and implied authority to contract with other municipalities for road grading, snow removal, and any other maintenance that the township so chooses." Yet, in the court's view, the County would not " be liable under the same negligence theory as the original municipality" unless the County assumed " full control under the contract." See generally Robinson v. Minnehaha Cty., 65 S.D. 628, 277 N.W. 324 (1938). If the County did not assume full control, the court interpreted the law to mean that the County would only be " liable for the duties it specifically contracted to do." See id. at 328.

[¶7] The court then examined whether the County assumed full control when it agreed to maintain the Township's roads. The court noted that the County presented evidence that it only agreed to blade gravel and plow snow for the Township. It rejected Foster-Naser's claim that the County assumed a duty to repair or maintain the Township's signage based on the fact the County sold the Township traffic signs. And it found unpersuasive Foster-Naser's argument that Konechne's use of the word " maintenance" during his deposition meant the County assumed full control over the Township's duty to maintain 268th Street. According to the court, Foster-Naser failed to present specific facts, testimony, contract evidence, or written documentation that " impliedly" or " purportedly" showed that Aurora County exhibited full control over the Township's duty to maintain its roads.

[¶8] The court granted Aurora County summary judgment. Foster-Naser appeals and we restate the ...


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