Split Supreme Court reverses summary judgment, immunity for INDOT in hydroplane lawsuit

Immunity for the Indiana Department of Transportation against a motorist’s personal injury lawsuit wasn’t appropriate because the agency knew of flooding issues on a northern Indiana highway for years and failed to remedy the problem before a woman was injured after her vehicle hydroplaned, a split Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

Justice Mark Massa dissented with a separate opinion in which Justice Geoffrey Slaughter joined as the Supreme Court majority reversed the Porter Superior Court’s order in Tracy Ladra v. State of Indiana and State of Indiana Department of Transportation, 21S-CT-235.

On a rainy evening in January 2017, Tracy Ladra was driving eastbound along Interstate 94 when her car struck a flooded area extending from the far-left shoulder of the highway to the middle lane. Her car hydroplaned, struck the concrete median and spun across traffic before rolling into a ditch.

When the first responding officer arrived on the scene, he observed flooding “all across the interstate,” with water extending “up above [his] ankle.”  When there’s a heavy downpour, he stated, “debris collects,” clogging the drains and flooding the area. In fact, the area flooded so consistently, the officer added, he’d had to call highway maintenance crews to “clear th[e] drains” at least 10 to 15 times during his six years on the force.

A second responding officer agreed the “area was prone to flooding,” the result of faulty drainage on the interstate. He noted the same problem in his accident report for Ladra, which attributed the hazard “to a clogged drainage system.” After police contacted INDOT on the night of Ladra’s accident, which happened to follow a similar accident at the same spot just moments before, a maintenance crew spent nearly three hours unclogging the drains and clearing the highway of flooding.

Ladra sued the state and INDOT for negligence, alleging INDOT’s “failure to post warnings of flooded roadway” and “failure to maintain proper drainage” resulted in “severe and permanent injury.”

INDOT moved for summary judgment, relying on Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(3), or Section 3, claiming immunity from injury due to a “temporary condition of a public thoroughfare … that results from weather.”

The trial court ruled for INDOT and the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed  in a divided opinion. The COA majority held immunity applies because, while Ladra presented evidence INDOT knew the area was prone to flooding, no evidence in the record suggested INDOT knew of the specific flooding that led to Ladra’s accident.

Supreme Court justices split on the case, with the majority ruling Ladra showed INDOT had long known of the defect causing the highway to flood. And because INDOT had more than ample opportunity to remedy that defect but failed in its duty, summary judgment was inappropriate.

“Granting immunity for injuries resulting from the government’s negligent conduct, simply because that conduct manifests during inclement weather, permits the state and its employees ‘carte blanche to act without the reasonable care required under the circumstances,’ ultimately imposing substantial hardship on those injured by the government’s negligence,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the majority. “And this same reasoning applies when the government negligently fails to remedy a known defect that only manifests during a temporary, but recurring, weather condition.”

INDOT contended that, by declining to amend Subsection 3 following Catt v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Knox Cnty., 779 N.E.2d 1 (Ind. 2002), the Legislature acquiesced in its interpretation. By modifying that interpretation, INDOT insisted the court impermissibly rewrote the subsection.

Ladra characterized the Catt rule as “unworkable.”

“We agree with Ladra that, by prohibiting courts from considering the government’s prior negligence in the design or maintenance of a public thoroughfare, the Catt rule effectively grants blanket immunity to the state in every circumstance involving inclement weather, leaving injured plaintiffs with virtually no remedy under Subsection (3),” Goff wrote. “We also agree with INDOT on the practical importance of government notice and opportunity to respond.”

The Supreme Court majority wrote the Catt court’s survey omitted “several important pre-(Indiana Tort Claims Act) decisions,” including McQueen v. City of Elkhart, City of Muncie v. Hey and City of Linton v. Maddox.

Properly applied, the Supreme Court majority found the modified standard conforms with the public policies underlying the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

“We acknowledge the underlying purposes of immunity: to protect the public treasury from excessive lawsuits and to ensure that public employees can exercise discretion in carrying out their official duties without fear of litigation,” Goff wrote. “… But immunity does not apply when a condition or defect in a public thoroughfare is ‘not caused by weather.’”

In his dissent, Massa wrote that the ITCA leads to an opposite conclusion and that the question of negligence wouldn’t reach a jury because INDOT is immune per the judgment of the General Assembly.

“The ITCA allows lawsuits against the State, but only under certain circumstances and only for certain harms,” Massa opined. “The State is immune under the ITCA for harms resulting from a public thoroughfare’s weather-induced temporary condition.

“… Here, the condition that harmed Tracy Ladra was flooding,” Massa continued. “That flooding temporarily occurred due to rain; the highway was not constantly under water. It is immaterial that the State, through INDOT, may have negligently failed to maintain the drains, because that alone would not have harmed Ladra. The harm only arose because of the rain, i.e., the weather. Accordingly, Ladra’s suit is barred by ITCA immunity.”

Massa further criticized the majority’s use of “ancient precedents” concerning immunity for municipal corporations — not the state — in support of its policy argument that the state should have to answer for any negligence.

“The Court goes on to question the need for immunity under the circumstances, including the legislative rationale of protecting taxpayers from tort judgments. But that misses the point,” Massa wrote. “The legislature is aware that immunity may work a harsh — even ‘unfair’ — outcome, yet still authorized it in certain circumstances. Any policy arguments are more properly considered by the General Assembly, which ‘has wide latitude in determining public policy.’

“… Indeed, this Court cannot substitute ‘its beliefs for [those] of the legislature in determining the wisdom or efficacy of a particular statute.’ I believe we have done so today and thus respectfully dissent.”

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