Indiana Department of Transportation Immune From Liability in Wrongful Death Case Arising From High-Speed Intersection Collision

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) based upon immunity provided under the Indiana Tort Claims Act (ITCA), Indiana Code Chapter 34-13-3. In Cranfill v. Dep’t of Transp., Josephine Cranfill was killed when the vehicle in which she was riding as a passenger was struck while crossing a problematic intersection in 2019 in Hendricks County, Indiana. The INDOT had known of safety concerns at the intersection since 2014, including a history of “right angle crashes.” In 2016 the INDOT installed extra signage at the intersection. Concerns about the intersection increased prior to the collision in 2019 because I-65 was closed and traffic from I-65 was detoured through the intersection. While at the time of the collision the speed limit on the main roadway going through the intersection was 55 MPH, after the collision, the INDOT temporarily reduced the speed limit to 45 MPH pending the installation of a traffic signal at the intersection.

Matthew Cranfill (“Cranfill”), Josephine’s father and the personal representative of Josephine’s estate, sued the INDOT for Josephine’s wrongful death. As applicable here, Cranfill alleged that the INDOT was negligent for failing to reduce the speed limit on the main roadway prior to the collision. While Indiana’s common law provides that governments have a duty to exercise reasonable care to keep streets and sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition for travel, the ITCA provides enumerated instances in which governments have immunity from tort liability. In the trial court, the INDOT moved for summary judgment based upon the ITCA, including, as applicable here, Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(8), which provides that “a governmental entity… is not liable if a loss results from… [t]he adoption and enforcement of or failure to adopt or enforce… a law (including rules and regulations).” The trial court agreed with the INDOT that the INDOT had immunity that was a complete bar to Cranfill’s claims, and therefore, entered final judgment in favor of the INDOT. Cranfill thereafter appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Cranfill argued the trial court erred in finding the INDOT had immunity. Cranfill relied on the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in Ladra v. State, a case discussed in one of our prior blogs. In Ladra, the Indiana Supreme Court adopted a new rule removing governmental immunity for the temporary condition of public thoroughfares when the government knows of an existing defect in a public thoroughfare that manifests during recurring weather conditions and has ample opportunity to respond. Here, Cranfill argued the INDOT should not have immunity because it knew about the dangerous condition at the intersection and had ample time to respond. However, the Indiana Court of Appeals noted the rule in Ladra did not apply to the ITCA subsection applicable here, Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(8). While the INDOT has statutory authority to alter speed limits and despite knowing of the dangerous condition of the intersection with ample time to respond, based upon prior precedent and the plain meaning of Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(8), the Court found the INDOT was immune for failing to lower the speed limit prior to the collision. The Court held that “[t]he Department’s failure to lower the speed limit on [the roadway] involved the ‘adoption and enforcement of or failure to adopt or enforce’ a rule and/or regulation,” and therefore, under the ITCA, the INDOT was immune from Cranfill’s claims.

You can read the full opinion here.

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