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Indiana Court of Appeals Questions Indiana Supreme Court Precedent Concerning Governmental Immunity for Car Crash Injuries Resulting from Temporary Conditions of Roadways Due to Weather

Governmental entities in Indiana have a duty to exercise reasonable care to keep roadways and sidewalks reasonably safe for travel. However, governmental entities also enjoy immunity under certain circumstances. In two recent cases dealing with governmental immunity for losses caused by temporary conditions of roadways resulting from weather, the Indiana Court of Appeals has questioned and raised concerns with the Indiana Supreme Court’s analytical framework set forth in the 2002 decision of Catt v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Knox Cty., 779 N.E. 2d 1 (Ind. 2002).

The plaintiff in Catt was injured when his vehicle slid and crashed into a ditch in Knox County caused by a washed-out culvert following a rainstorm the night before. The culvert had washed out many times prior to Catt’s car accident and had been repaired. The plaintiff alleged Knox County had negligently inspected, designed or maintained the roadway. However, the Indiana Supreme Court held Knox County, despite any negligence, was immune from liability under section 34-13-3-3(3) of the Indiana Tort Claims Act, which provides “[a] governmental entity… is not liable if a loss results from… [t]he temporary condition of a public thoroughfare… that results from weather.” Ind. Code § 34-13-3-3(3). The Court framed the question as whether the washed-out culvert was due to weather and whether Knox County had the opportunity to repair the washed-out culvert and failed to do so (i.e., whether it was temporary versus permanent), regardless of any prior negligent inspection, design or maintenance or the frequency with which the culvert may have washed out on prior occasions. Since the washed-out culvert was caused by weather, Knox County had not received notice that it had washed out on this occasion prior to the collision, and Knox County was busy repairing other washed-out culverts and had previously repaired this one, the Court found the washed-out culvert was caused by weather and was a temporary condition.

In subsequent cases based on Catt, the Indiana Supreme Court has further explained that governmental immunity for temporary conditions resulting from weather applies during the “window of reasonable response” to the road condition. That window lasts until the condition stabilizes. That is, if the condition continues to worsen or is still evolving, the condition has not stabilized and is therefore deemed temporary, and the government is immune.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reviewed Catt in the recent case of Ladra v. State, 2021 WL 325849 (Ind. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2021). In this case, Tracy Ladra (“Ladra”) filed a lawsuit against the State of Indiana and the State of Indiana Department of Transportation (collectively “INDOT”) after she sustained injuries when her car hydroplaned as a result of flooding on I-94 in Portage, Indiana. The flooding occurred due to a clogged drainage system that caused consistent flooding in the area with an officer stating he had previously contacted the state highway maintenance crew between 10-15 times to unclog the drains. Ladra alleged INDOT was negligent for failing to provide warnings and failing to have proper drainage and properly maintain the drains. The INDOT filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, finding INDOT was immune.

On appeal Ladra argued that INDOT was not entitled to immunity because her collision was caused as a result of the clogged drainage system and not the flooded roadway, or at least that the flooded roadway was not the sole cause of the accident. The Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed finding the flooded roadway was the direct result of the clogged drainage system and there was no evidence that the clogged drainage system was not the result of rain and collecting debris during the rain.

Ladra also argued that the clogging of the drainage system was not a temporary condition, but rather the permanent condition of the clogged drainage system that caused flooding whenever it rained. The Court of Appeals, however, discussing and relying on Catt, noted that factors such as poor inspection, design or maintenance or the frequency of prior events were irrelevant to the question of whether a condition was temporary or permanent. And because there was no evidence the weather had stabilized or the INDOT had an opportunity to respond, having no notice of the flooding before the accident, the Court found the facts in Ladra fell within the scope of Catt and the flooded roadway was a temporary condition providing the INDOT with immunity.

In so holding, the Court of Appeals stated that Catt had created circular reasoning whereby unaddressed defects in roadways that only cause issues during weather events are irrelevant to whether the issues arising therefrom are deemed temporary or permanent. In other words, under Catt, governments are entitled to immunity even for negligently failing to address a known defect in a roadway so long as the defect only materializes during a weather event. The Court in Ladra stated that Catt removed its ability to consider INDOT’s knowledge of the frequency of prior events in determining whether the condition was temporary or whether the accident was actually the result of the weather or the failure to address a condition prior to the weather event. According to the Court of Appeals, Catt “not only allows for the State to be negligent, it encourages it” and “gives the State no incentive to attempt to implement remedial or preventative measures…”

A few days after deciding Ladra, the Indiana Court of Appeals issued a decision in a similar case, Staat v. Indiana Dep’t of Transp., 2021 WL 325670 (Ind. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2021). In this case, Chad Staat and Julie Statt (collectively “Staats”) filed a lawsuit against the INDOT arising from injuries Chad sustained when his vehicle hydroplaned on accumulated, pooling, or puddled water on I-74, left the roadway, and collided with a tree. As in Ladra, the trial court granted the INDOT’s motion for summary judgment based upon immunity for a temporary condition resulting from weather. However, unlike Ladra, the Court of Appeals in Staat found that the INDOT had not designated evidence showing that the collision resulted from a temporary condition.

The INDOT argued the accumulated water on I-74 was due to an ongoing rainfall, which had gotten worse immediately prior to the collision and which had created a condition that had not stabilized. Although it had been raining the night before the collision and was raining at the time of the collision, the Staats argued that despite ongoing rain, the INDOT had not shown the accumulated, pooled, or puddled condition of I-74 had not in fact stabilized, noting when puddles fill up, they cannot continue to fill up and eventually stabilize and then dissipate. The Court agreed with the Staats, finding a reasonable inference that any accumulated, pooled, or puddled water had reached its maximum capacity, and the INDOT had failed to show whether the roadway condition had stabilized one way or the other. Thus, the Court found a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the condition was temporary so as to entitle the INDOT to immunity. The Court also found the INDOT had not negated breach of its duty as a matter of law due to it having received no notice of the accumulated, pooled, or puddled water, as the question is not just whether the INDOT knew of the water, but also whether the INDOT should have known of the water.

In so holding, the Court of Appeals in Staat also voiced its concern with the analytical framework set forth in Catt. The Court noted its agreement with Ladra that Catt allows and encourages negligence taking away any incentive for remedial or preventative measures to address dangerous conditions that only manifest during weather events. Fortunately, while the Court in Staat was bound by the precedent in Catt, it was able to reach a more reasoned result than in Ladra.

You can read the opinion in Ladra here.

You can read the opinion in Staat here.

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