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For-profit Veolia Water not entitled to common law sovereign immunity

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The Indiana Supreme Court held Thursday that for-profit, private company Veolia Water is not entitled to common law sovereign immunity from liability for damages resulting from a fire that destroyed an Indianapolis Texas Roadhouse restaurant in 2010.

When Indianapolis firefighters arrived at the restaurant, they were delayed in fighting the fire because of several frozen hydrants. As a result, the restaurant was a total loss. At the time of the fire, Veolia Water Indianapolis LLC was responsible for operating the city’s water utility pursuant to an agreement with the city. The restaurant’s insurers brought this lawsuit, alleging the hydrants froze because the private companies to whom Veolia licensed access failed to properly close the hydrants.

The trial court held that the city is not entitled to common law sovereign immunity or statutory sovereign immunity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act regarding the water supply and that Veolia is not entitled to common law sovereign immunity on the matter. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that the two entities are entitled to common law sovereign immunity.

The COA urged the Supreme Court to take this case to rule on the growing use and complexity of public-private contracts. The justices relied on Metal Working Lubricants Co. v. Indianapolis Water Co., 746 N.E.2d 352 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), and a test outlined by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm the trial court’s decision that Veolia isn’t entitled to sovereign immunity.

“Despite the arguments that the City and Veolia advance, we are persuaded by the Insurers’ claim that the profit motive of Veolia — a for-profit, private company operating a public water utility under contract with a governmental unit — precludes extension of the common law sovereign immunity to which the City is entitled. Therefore, Veolia is not entitled to common law sovereign immunity on the Insurers’ claims that it failed to provide an adequate supply of water from which to fight the fire. The case against Veolia may proceed; although the Insurers’ case may not be successful on its merits, or even reach the merits, their case survives Veolia’s Rule 12 motion,” Justice Steven David wrote in Veolia Water Indianapolis, LLC, City of Indianapolis, Department of Waterworks, and City of Indianapolis v. National Trust Insurance Company and FCCI Insurance Company a/s/o Ultra Steak, Inc., et al., 49S04-1301-PL-8.

David encouraged trial courts to look to the 5th Circuit test for guidance when these kinds of issues arise in court.

The justices also affirmed that the city is not entitled to statutory sovereign immunity from liability regarding the inadequate water supply, but found the city is entitled to common law sovereign immunity.
 

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