Since 2001, National Work Zone Awareness Week has been recognized every spring. This week, celebrated from April 15th to the 19th  this year, highlights the importance of using extra caution in work zones. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), there are more than 40,000 people who are injured annually in a work zone. These are injuries that are easily avoidable, and just one way to help significantly reduce such injuries is to emphasize that driving in a work zone requires everyone’s undivided attention. Due to distracted drivers or mistakes made by those working in the work zone, there were 774 fatal work zone crashes resulting in 857 deaths in 2020 alone. This number only increased in 2021. In 2021, 956 people died in a work zone.

The number of people either injured or killed in the work zone is an incredibly high one. This article will explore specific examples of work zone-related catastrophes that have occurred across various states. These examples will help to convey the importance of not only safety, but also the awareness that is needed by both the driver and the company or companies located in the work zone. Oftentimes, many different companies are working in conjunction with one another to successfully complete a construction project. This is usually the norm rather than the exception.

One proactive approach to help reduce such tragedies is for those involved in work zone areas to explore how various insurance coverage options could help to reduce potential and significant liability that may be incurred when tragedy results.

A professional liability (“PL”) insurance policy is just one form of coverage that should be discussed. PL helps businesses to mitigate their risks when a mistake or error is alleged in the performance of one’s professional services. Each policy can differ in terms of how professional services are defined under the policy. PL coverage may include coverage for defense costs, bodily injuries, property damage, and economic damages arising out of a company’s negligence in providing professional services. As with any insurance policy, coverage limits based on the insured’s individual circumstances need to be discussed.

  1. WSDOT Workers Injured After Crashes Through Work Zone in Federal Way

In 2024, when a crew was hired by the Washington State Department of Transportation (“WSDOT”) to work on guardrails three workers were transported to the hospital due to a car crashing into the work zone. It is the responsibility of the workers to set up traffic control patterns that are clear and apparent to the drivers. Crashes like these happen too often, yet such incidents are avoidable. According to the WSDOT, in 2022 there were 836 work zone collisions that resulted in six deaths.

When an allegation of negligent design is made, coverage under a PL policy could be triggered. As noted in the example discussed above, when workers do not properly mark the work zone a distracted driver could end up striking a barrier; this impact could lead to workers suffering injuries as a result.

  1. Six Workers Killed After Car Goes into Highway Work Zone in Maryland

In 2023, six highway workers died after a car entered the work zone and hit them. The car went in between the jersey barriers when trying to change lanes; the car struck the front of another car, which then flipped over onto the workers. Although this crash was the worst in Maryland in 2023, there were still more than 1,100 crashes in a work zone that year as explained by ABC Baltimore news.

The circumstances addressed above highlight how PL coverage may be triggered if negligent design is found to be the contributing factor. When companies are working in a work zone area, they need to be cognizant of the professional liability exposures that may result. If negligent work zone design had been found to be such a contributing factor to the accident at the work site, professional liability exposure could have resulted.

In this example, if there was negligence on the workers for how they constructed the path for cars, the company could be held responsible for the confusion the driver may have had while switching lanes. PL coverage could prevent the company from having to pay out of pocket for legal fees or judgments ruled against them.

  1. Contractor Struck and Killed by Car While Working on Grand Central Parkway

In 2023, a contractor who was working on Grand Central Parkway in Queens was struck by a car and killed. This contractor was inspecting the wall on the parkway when the driver of a car caused a work zone intrusion. In New York State alone, there were a combined 225 highway worker fatalities in 2020 and 2021. According to ABC  7 News, New York saw a 14 percent increase in work zone fatalities in 2021.

  1. States Legislatively Respond to Work Zone Injuries and Fatalities
    1. New York State’s, “Move Over” Law

The increase in fatalities has caused the New York State legislature to further expand its Move Over Law. Along with New York wanting to implement a new speed monitoring system in work zones, New York also very recently expanded its “Move Over Law.” This new measure went into effect as of Wednesday, March 27, 2024. As reported by The Daily Gazette, the move over law had already required that vehicles move over to accommodate an emergency or hazard vehicle.  Now, when there are any cars pulled over on the side of the highway drivers must change lanes to accommodate for enough space for any vehicle that is pulled over to the side of the road.

  1. Maryland’s Legislative Response

In addition to New York, Maryland’s legislature has also worked to reduce such work zone injuries or fatalities from a legislative standpoint. This has encompassed proposing increased fines in work zone areas, utilizing increased inspections, and offering training for those in work sites to help ensure that they are following proper safety protocols. According to ABC Baltimore news. This initiative has even involved developing a campaign to help educate those in school about work zone safety issues.

These examples convey the scary truth about just some of the issues that can and have occurred in work zones. Although state legislatures are continually reviewing and recognizing the importance of adding and/or expanding safety measures to help reduce injuries and fatalities in work zones, companies performing professional services within these very areas need to understand the importance of obtaining the appropriate coverage in the event that a tragedy occurs. These affected companies could encompass both general contractors and subcontractors. Obtaining PL can help to mitigate risk exposure for companies when an error or omission connected to professional services occurs.

By: Camee Hughes, In-House Legal Extern for Synapse Partners LLC

Synapse Services offers insurance coverage options for an expansive number of industries. Please contact one of our producers if you are interested in receiving additional information about the availability of insurance options specifically tailored to your industry.

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