Summary judgment for the state on a negligence claim brought by an injured motorist has been reversed after the Indiana Court of Appeals rejected an immunity claim and found that material factual issues remain.
Chad and Julie Staat sued the Indiana Department of Transportation in May 2014, alleging the department was responsible for injuries Chad suffered on Interstate 74, where his vehicle struck “an accumulation of water,” hydroplaned and hit a tree. The Staats also raised a loss of consortium claim as to Julie.
INDOT moved for summary judgment, arguing it was immune for design liability and from liability related to a “temporary” road condition caused by the weather. Even if it wasn’t entitled to immunity, INDOT said summary judgment was proper because it did not have notice of the road condition.
The Staats conceded the issue of design-defect immunity but challenged the other grounds for summary judgment. The Dearborn Superior Court ultimately granted INDOT’s motion and denied the Staats’ subsequent motion to correct error.
The Court of Appeals partially reversed on Thursday, affirming only the holding on the design defect claims that the Staats had conceded. But citing to Bules v. Marshall Cnty., 920 N.E.2d 247 (Ind. 2010), the panel held that INDOT did not show its entitlement to weather-related immunity.
“Although the designated evidence indicates that it had been raining for quite some time and that rainfall increased around the time of the collision, the evidence supports a reasonable inference that a puddle had formed at some point before the collision, with new rainfall displacing the puddled water,” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote. “In other words, the designated evidence supports a reasonable inference that the road condition stabilized well before the collision.
“… Ultimately, INDOT failed to designate evidence establishing that the collision occurred during the window of reasonable response,” Bailey continued. “We therefore conclude that summary judgment based on weather-related immunity is improper.”
The panel used Thursday’s opinion to echo concerns raised in a Wednesday decision dealing with similar facts, Ladra v. State, No. 20A-CT-1418 (Ind. Ct. App., Jan. 27, 2021). In that case with very similar facts, however, the same panel affirmed summary judgment for the state.
“In evaluating whether immunity applied, this Court observed that Catt and its progeny have ‘removed[d] any ability for the court to consider INDOT’s knowledge regarding the frequency at which conditions caused by weather arise in determining whether a condition is temporary or whether the result is truly from the weather or the failure to take some action prior to the weather event,’” Bailey wrote, referencing Catt v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Knox Cnty., 779 N.E.2d 1 (Ind. 2002). “We agree with Ladra that the current analytical framework ‘not only allows for the State to be negligent, it encourages it’ by giving the State ‘no incentive to attempt to implement remedial or preventative measures regarding such conditions.’
“In any case,” Bailey continued, “we are bound by this precedent and will proceed to apply it.”
In an opinion concurring in result, Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote separately “only to note my disagreement with the interpretation” of Catt. She penned a similar dissent Wednesday to the Ladra decision, in which she dissented from the majority that affirmed summary judgment.
Turning to the issue of negligence — specifically, INDOT’s notice of the water pooling on I-74 – the COA panel wrote that the department “has provided little evidentiary support for its claim of lack of notice.”
“Furthermore, even if INDOT had demonstrated a lack of actual knowledge, the appropriate inquiry is whether INDOT knew or should have known about the road condition,” Bailey wrote. “… Ultimately, whether INDOT knew or should have known of puddling on I-74 is an issue that must be resolved by a fact-finder.”
The case of Chad Albert Staat, et al. v. Indiana Department of Transportation, 20A-CT-1283, was remanded for further proceedings.