Supreme Court affirms ruling for INDOT in injured motorist’s negligence case

An injured motorist who crashed his car into a tree after hydroplaning on Interstate 74 during a downpour did not convince the Indiana Supreme Court that his negligence suit against the Indiana Department of Transportation should proceed.

In May 2014, Chad Staat and his wife Julie sued INDOT, alleging it was responsible for injuries Chad suffered on I-74 after his vehicle struck a pool of water, hydroplaned and hit a tree. The Staats alleged negligence in the design and maintenance of the highway, as well as loss of consortium as to Julie.

INDOT moved for summary judgment, claiming that the Indiana Tort Claims Act entitled it to immunity against the Staats’ negligent maintenance claim because the accident resulted from a temporary condition caused by weather. It also denied liability for negligence, citing its lack of notice of pooling on the interstate.

The Dearborn Superior Court granted summary judgment for INDOT, but the Court of Appeals of Indiana partially reversed, finding that summary judgment based on weather-related immunity was improper. That COA panel echoed concerns raised in its earlier decision in Ladra v. State, a case with similar facts that instead ruled for the state.

Judge Elizabeth Tavitas concurred in result, agreeing that there was a genuine issue of material fact. However, she wrote separately to reiterate her disagreement with the interpretation of Catt v. Board of Commissioners of Knox County, 779 N.E.2d 1 (Ind. 2002), as mentioned in her Ladra dissent.

Justices in a separate Dec. 9 opinion addressed the question of causation in Ladra, concluding that the trial court there erred in granting summary judgment in favor of INDOT on the issue of immunity.

Addressing the question of whether the condition was “temporary” in the Staats’ case, the justices affirmed the grant of summary judgment to INDOT, finding that the condition of I-74 was temporary because of the ongoing storm.

“While we agree with the Staats that a condition may stabilize even when the weather that caused that condition has yet to subside, that did not happen here,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote. “By limiting the ‘condition of the public thoroughfare’ to a puddle on the roadway, the Staats interpret the phrase too narrowly. While it may have been true that the volume of the puddle had stabilized, that was only part of the condition of I-74 at the time of the accident.”

The high court further held that those facts favor a finding in the Staats’ case that the condition was even more temporary than those in Bules v. Marshall Cty., 920 N.E.2d 247, 250 (Ind. 2010). It concluded that because INDOT employees could not safely warn motorists of possible flooding, the trial court properly found that the condition was temporary.

Additionally, the justices concluded that the condition of I-74 resulted from the weather rather than from the government’s conduct. It found that both claims for failure to maintain the roadway and warn motorists related to the time during the weather event itself, not to alleged negligent conduct that occurred prior to the weather event, as in Ladra.

“The duty to warn doesn’t arise during the period of reasonable response,” Goff concluded in Chad Albert Staat and Julie Staat v. Indiana Department of Transportation, 21S-CT-240. “Because we determine that the period of reasonable response had not elapsed, we find that the condition was a result of the weather.”

Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justices Steven David and Geoffrey Slaughter concurred, while Justice Mark Massa concurred in result without a separate opinion.

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