Court upholds $3 million judgment against N.C. DOT in Palisades deadly crash

The N.C. Court of Appeals has upheld a $3 million judgment against the N.C. Department of Transportation over an uninstalled traffic signal on N.C. 49 in south Charlotte that contributed to a 2009 car crash that claimed three lives.

The crash occurred as two cars were drag racing southbound on N.C. 49 near the Palisades.

Cynthia Jean Furr was making a left turn from Riverpointe Drive onto N.C. 49 toward uptown and was blindsided by one of the racing cars, which was traveling at 86 mph.

Furr was killed in the crash, as was her 2-year-old daughter, Mackie. The wreck also killed 13-year-old Hunter Holt, who was a passenger in one of the racing cars.

In 2000, N.C. 49 had previously been a two-lane highway with a 45 mph speed limit.

But Crescent Resources wanted to develop a new residential community, The Palisades, and reached a deal with the N.C. DOT and Mecklenburg County to expand N.C. 49, among other changes.

The plan for the intersection of Riverpointe Drive, Palisades Parkway and N.C. 49 included installation of traffic signals, which were to be funded by Crescent and installed by DOT. The Palisades opened around 2006.

But by the date of the crash – April 4, 2009 – no signals had been installed. Residents had complained about the intersection, which they said was unsafe. And a DOT district engineer had warned Crescent three years earlier that a signal was needed “at [that] time.”

In 2013, a Mecklenburg jury ordered Crescent to pay $6 million to the family of Hunter Holt and the estate of Cynthia Price, administered by her husband, Steve Price.

Crescent said it would appeal the decision, and a settlement was reached between the developer and the families.

The families also sued DOT over the traffic signal. In 2014, the N.C. Industrial Commission unanimously ordered DOT to pay $1 million to the families of each victim.

DOT appealed that decision.

The state argued that the actions of the drivers were the cause of the crash, not the $200,000 traffic signal that hadn’t been installed.

DOT had said, “Traffic signals are not intended as a mechanism to keep individuals from engaging in criminal acts. … It is impossible for (the state) to design a roadway upon which drivers may safely race one another at almost 90 miles per hour.”

In a 2-1 decision released Tuesday, the court said “DOT’s focus on the criminal nature of (the person drag racing) is misplaced.”

In writing for the majority, Chief Judge Linda McGee said DOT only needed to have “foreseen that some injury would result from [its] act or omission. …”

She added: “Clearly, it was foreseeable that the failure to install traffic lights at a dangerous and complicated intersection could result in ‘some injury’ or ‘consequences of a generally injurious nature.’ 

Charlotte attorney Fred DeVore, who represented Cynthia Furr’s estate, said DOT had focused on the act of drag racing in its appeal.

“But there can be more than one cause to a crash,” he said. “The DOT admitted it should have installed the light.”

DOT can appeal the verdict to the N.C. Supreme Court. DeVore said he hopes the state won’t pursue the issue further.

In a dissent, Judge Rick Elmore said the state couldn’t anticipate that two cars would have been drag racing.

“I think most are in agreement that DOT can reasonably foresee that a driver traveling on its roadways might speed,” he wrote.

But he said DOT couldn’t be blamed for not anticipating a drag race in which one car would “ become airborne and flip several times before landing in the median area.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs