Judgment for INDOT upheld in fatal crash litigation

Even though the Indiana Department of Transportation declined to install a traffic signal at a Tippecanoe County intersection where a deadly crash later occurred, the Indiana Court of Appeals has upheld summary judgment for the department, finding it was immune from liability under the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

Rajna and Milan Jurich filed a negligence and wrongful death case against INDOT after a July 2014 vehicle collision at the intersection of U.S. Highway 231 and Cumberland Avenue in West Lafayette, which was created as part of the “Major Moves” project.

As part of the construction on Cumberland Avenue, city and county officials asked INDOT to put up a temporary traffic control signal at the intersection. But INDOT studies determined the intersection did not meet the volume requirements to justify a signal, so the department did not install one.

Then, while passing through the intersection, a vehicle driven by Rade Jurich was struck by a speeding vehicle. Both Rade and passenger Rajna Jurich, who was in the vehicle, were injured, and Rade eventually died from his injuries.  

The suit against INDOT was filed about 18 months later, claiming negligence, wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. During discovery, the department produced multiple traffic studies performed on the intersection but did not produce a study performed in 2011. The 2011 study was eventually revealed, and the Jurichs claimed the results of the study justified the installation of a traffic signal based on traffic volumes during the 2011 “peak hour.” 

Thus, the Jurichs moved for discovery sanctions, which the Tippecanoe Superior Court imposed via courts costs and fees. But the trial court also granted partial summary judgment to INDOT, finding the department qualified for discretionary function immunity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

The Jurichs moved to correct error on the summary judgment ruling while INDOT moved for reconsideration of the sanctions. The trial court granted the latter motion, finding the 2011 study and related emails were not material or discoverable, and relatedly denied the motion to correct error.

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in full in a Tuesday opinion, with Judge James Kirsch agreeing with the trial court that INDOT’s decision not to install a traffic signal based on the studies was a discretionary “planning” function that created immunity.

“’Tort immunity for basic planning and policy-making functions is necessary to avoid the chilling effect on the ability of the government to deal effectively with difficult policy issues which it confronts daily,” Kirsch wrote, quoting Peavler v. Board of Commissioners of Monroe County, 528 N.E.2d 40 (Ind. 1988).

Even without immunity, Kirsch said the facts would not support a negligence claim against INDOT because the traffic volume at the intersection, as reported in the study, did not meet the minimum threshold.

Similarly, even though the “peak hour” traffic volume in the 2011 study met that threshold, peak hour was not material, Kirsch said. Only an analysis of the eight-hour vehicular volume, which did not meet the threshold, was material under INDOT policies, he said, so the 2011 peak hour analysis did not create a genuine issue of fact.

Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the Jurichs’ motion to correct error and in overturning the sanctions based on the later-produced 2011 study.  

The case is Milan Jurich, Personal Representative of the Estate of Rade Jurich, and Rajna Jurich v. Indiana Department of Transportation, 18A-CT-1417.

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