Falling Sign Causes Tragic Deaths in Elizabethtown
Tragedy struck Elizabethtown, KY last week when a Denny’s sign fell 80 feet onto a car, ultimately killing two passengers and injuring the driver.
The falling sign has been attributed to weather. According to WDRB, “Elizabethtown Police Detective Chris Denham said intense wind gusts are believed to have contributed to toppling the sign. A crane was brought in to remove it; crews said it weighed about 1.3 tons.” The new station has requested documentation to see if the sign met Kentucky’s building and maintenance standards.
Our hearts go out to the family of the victims and their loved ones. We hope that they find both justice and closure in the coming days.
Could high winds really knock down a Denny’s sign?
Reports say that the wind was gusting up to 49mph that day. According to the National Weather Service, that speed is categorized as a high threat “to life and property from high wind.” Wind gusts at this speed can move vehicles on the roadway and break limbs from trees. So yes, it is conceivable that a 49mph wind could knock a 1.3 ton sign down.
It has happened before, too. In February 2022, a McDonald’s sign fell onto a Nissan Sentra during high winds; in 2021, a minivan was crushed by a falling Burger King sign on a day where the wind blew between 32 and 40 mph.
Can someone be held liable for injuries sustained from a falling sign?
Under most circumstances, yes. Owner/operators owe their customers a duty of care under Kentucky law. If they fail to keep their customer safe, they can be named in a premises liability lawsuit.
There are always exceptions, however. For example, if there is a defect in the sign or the poles which held it up, then the manufacturer or installer may be liable for the injuries. If an outside company was contracted for this maintenance, the liability may fall to that company instead. This is important because under normal circumstances, a business may agree to a settlement claim with an injured person and then fight the installer, manufacturer, or maintenance contractor to recoup its losses – but a case like this is likely to be public, and a jury seems likely to find for the family. Furthermore, Denny’s is a franchise business, and the company itself will try to point fingers at the franchise owner, so the legal battle will be complicated.
There is also a question of foreseeability. Because Kentucky is a comparative negligence state, a jury could find that an injury victim is at least partially responsible for his or her own injuries. This is an issue of foreseeability: Was the risk foreseeable at the time of the event? Did the landowner act with a reasonable duty of care? Is the risk of harm unreasonable in and of itself? (Greer v. Kaminkow 401 F. Supp. 3d 762) While it seems very unlikely that a jury would assign any liability to the victims in this case, it must also determine if the “injury of some kind to some person within the natural range of effect of the alleged negligent act could have been foreseen.” And who would reasonably assume that high winds would knock a sign off a pole 80 feet in the air?
What happens next?
As of right now, this terrible tragedy is still under investigation. Once the investigation is complete, the report should be made available to victim’s family and the premises on which this occurred. This report could include invaluable evidence for the family, but it may not be enough.
If the family wish to pursue a wrongful death claim, they will likely need reports from engineers and other field experts, as well as access to the medical records of the victims. They will only have one year to file this lawsuit after an estate administrator is appointed, though exceptions apply here as well. As in any premises liability case, it is in their best interest to contact an attorney quickly, so that they can keep all options open to them.
All of us at Wilt & Associates will be praying for the family. For more information, please call us in Lexington or Louisville or fill out our contact form.