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County immunity in weather-related accident

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The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment for a county sued as a result of a weather-related accident, holding government liability immunity in steps taken as a result of the weather lasts until at least the weather condition has stabilized.

Robert Bules and his son Brian sued Marshall County after they were injured when their tractor-trailer crashed after hitting high water in the road. There was a sign at the water's edge noting high water, but Robert didn't see it in time to stop. The Buleses claimed the county was negligent in warning of the dangers of the road's condition. The water in the road was caused by a period of warm weather followed by a drop in temperature into the low teens early on the day of the accident. The weather fluctuation caused a river to flood the road the Buleses traveled on and also caused some icy patches.

The county placed warning signs on the road and salted and sanded; the river reached a historic crest on the day of the accident. There are discrepancies between the parties as to how many signs were located on the road at the time of the accident and the condition of the road in the days prior to the accident.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding the issue of whether the placement of the signs was negligent foreclosed immunity for the county. A governmental entity is immune to liability for breaching its duty to maintain public thoroughfares if a loss results from a temporary condition caused by weather. It's undisputed the flooding and freezing on the roads was caused by a weather event, but at issue in the case is whether the condition was temporary and therefore conferred immunity, wrote Justice Theodore Boehm for the majority in Robert and Brian Bules v. Marshall County, et al., No. 50S03-1001-CV-57.

The county showed the condition continued to worsen in the hours up until the accident - the river didn't even crest until the day of the accident. "The window of reasonable response wherein immunity applies is at a minimum the period of time it takes the condition throughout the affected area to stabilize," wrote the justice.
 
"In this case, after the County attempted to address the flooding and ice at the accident site, the condition continued to worsen into the early morning of the day of the accident. The 'period of reasonable response' lasts at least until the condition stops worsening," wrote Justice Boehm, which in this case would have been when the river crested.

Because the accident happened during this period, immunity applies, regardless of the alleged inadequacies in the county's initial response at the site of the Buleses' accident. The justices also upheld the striking of portions of Robert's affidavit that detailed his opinion as to how the county was negligent and how he would have acted if he had been properly warned of the flooding; and the exclusion of a letter from an insurance agent stating the county accepted liability for the accident. Justice Brent Dickson dissented because he believed the Court of Appeals' ruling was correct.

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