Indiana Department of Transportation Cleared of Fatal Crash Liability for Failure to Install Traffic Signal

Although the Indiana Department of Transportation (DOT) declined to install a traffic signal at an intersection, possibly playing a role in a fatal car accident that later occurred at the site, the state appellate court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the agency.

Ultimately, the court ruled, provisions of the Indiana Tort Claims Act shielded the government from civil liability.

That does not necessarily mean plaintiffs were without any options for recovering damages, but it does mean those damages will not come from the state government. This negligence and wrongful death lawsuit outcome illustrates the difficulties associated with holding government agencies accountable in injury litigation, as they enjoy a number of broad legal protections.

Plaintiffs Assert Negligent Road Design in Fatal Crash

The case was filed following a deadly summer 2014 crash in West Lafayette, at an intersection constructed as part of the state’s Major Moves project, an aggressive, decade-long plan to improve Indiana’s highway infrastructure. When the Indiana DOT (INDOT) began construction, both city and county officials requested a temporary traffic control signal. INDOT, however, declined, finding the intersection didn’t meet traffic volume requirements to justify a signal, but did install a stop sign for east-west drivers.

Twelve days later, an eastbound motorist stopped at the sign and was partially through the intersection when he was struck by a northbound driver who was traveling 72-mph in a 35-mph zone, resulting in fatal injuries to the eastbound driver and serious injuries to his passenger.  Another traffic volume study, when classes at nearby Purdue University had resumed for the fall, revealed the traffic volumes rose to meet the minimum criteria for a traffic signal, which was then installed.

When the trial court issued a grant of summary judgment, it did so on the basis of government immunity. Specifically, the court held (and appellate court affirmed) that the studies and the decision by INDOT employees not to install a traffic light prior to the crash were discretionary decisions, giving rise to government immunity.

The appellate judge, however, ruled that even if the immunity provision hadn’t applied, there wasn’t enough proof the government agency had been negligent because the traffic study completed prior to the crash did not show minimum traffic volumes necessitated a signal. Plaintiffs countered that INDOT failed to take into account the peak traffic volume numbers at that time, but the judge ruled that wasn’t necessary.

Determining Government Immunity or Liability in Indiana Car Accidents

As a car accident attorney can explain, there are numerous scenarios in which a government agency may be liable.

For example, if you are involved in a crash with an at-fault government employee driver or someone behind the wheel of a government-owned vehicle, it’s possible the government may bear some responsibility. These would include school buses, public works vehicles, police or emergency vehicles or snow plows.

In some cases, government agencies may have some responsibility for the negligence of private contractors, depending on the type of work and the degree of control the government had over the work the contractor conducted.

Car accident attorneys know that crashes on government-owned property or roads may result in government liability, but it will be very case-specific.

Negligent road design and/or maintenance can be a legal cause of action, but one must first overcome assertions of sovereign immunity, as laid out in IC 34-13-3-3, and discretionary function immunity. To determine whether a government worker’s conduct falls within the discretionary function exception, courts typically apply a two-part test:

Does a statute, regulation or policy specifically prescribe a course of action for an employee to follow? Because in that case, the employee has no choice but to adhere to that directive.

Is the judgment in question one that involves considerations of social, economic or political policy? For example, the decision not to warn about a specific, known danger for which the government is responsible wouldn’t be the sort of broad social policy the exception was carved out to protect – at both the federal and state level.

In this case, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that opined the discretionary planning function immunity applied, which as noted in the 1988 Indiana Supreme Court case of Peavler v. Board of Commissioners of Monroe County, was designed to circumvent the chilling effect on the ability of government to deal effectively with difficult polices it confronts every day.

Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.