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Bridge complaint raises questions about governmental immunity

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The Indiana Court of Appeals addressed conflicting caselaw about a government’s immunity from liability before siding with the older precedent and ruling that any move to overturn that case should be left to the Indiana Supreme Court.  

In Bartholomew County and Bartholomew County Commissioners v. Doug Johnson and Lucretia Johnson v. C & H/M Excavating and Construction, Inc., and Christopher B. Burke Engineering, LTD,  03A01-1212-CT-578, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and found the county was immune from the Johnsons’ complaint.

The complaint arose after the Johnsons’ home and outbuildings were flooded. They blamed the new bridge the county had built near their property. Their complaint alleged the county had negligently designed, constructed, maintained and operated the bridge which caused the flooding.

Bartholomew County responded by filing for summary judgment. It argued it had immunity from liability for the acts of contractor, C&H/M Excavating, Inc., and designer, Christopher Burke Engineering, Ltd., pursuant to Indiana Code Section 34-13-3-3(10). To support its argument, the county cited Henshaw v. Board of Commissioners of Jay County, 611 N.E.2d 637 (Ind. 1993).

The Johnsons countered that the county had a non-delegable common law and statutory duty to design, construct and maintain the bridge, and that it cannot avoid liability. They relied on Shand Mining, Inc. v. Clay County Board of Commissioners, 671 N.E. 2d 477 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996), trans. denied (1997) and City of Vincennes v. Reuhl 672 N.E.2d 495 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996), trans. denied (1997).

At trial, the lower court agreed with the Johnsons that the county is not immune from liability regarding the construction of its bridges.

The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding the trial court erred in not finding the county had immunity from liability for any of the designer’s acts or omissions. It cited Hinshaw as clearly holding that Indiana Code Section 34-13-3-3(10) grants immunity to a governmental entity in situations where an independent contractor was performing a delegable duty.

“Indiana Code Section 34-13-3-3(10) would be useless in situations involving an independent contractor if it did not apply to non-delegable duties and we ‘presume that the legislature did not enact a useless provision,’” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the court.

“To the extent that Shand Mining and Reuhl conflict with Hinshaw on this point, we respectfully disagree with those cases. If Hinshaw is to be abrogated, it should be done by our supreme court.”

The Court of Appeals noted the county’s summary judgment motion was directed only toward the negligence of third parties and the negligent design and construction. Consequently, it remanded for further proceedings as to the county’s allegedly negligent maintenance and operation of the bridge.
 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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