We previously wrote about the Indiana Court of Appeals opinion in Ladra v. State affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the State of Indiana and the Indiana Department of Transportation (collectively “INDOT”) finding INDOT immune from liability in a lawsuit brought by Tracy Ladra (“Ladra”), who suffered injuries when her vehicle hydroplaned on a flooded portion of I-94. In the case, there was evidence INDOT was aware of a defect in the highway’s drainage system that would cause consistent flooding in the highway. However, the Indiana Court of Appeals (reluctantly so) relied on Indiana Supreme Court precedent in Catt v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Knox Cty., 779 N.E. 2d 1 (Ind. 2002), which characterized any negligence of the government in the design and maintenance of a thoroughfare and its knowledge of past incidents as irrelevant, and held INDOT was immune based upon the Indiana Tort Claims Act (ITCA), 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).
In the same blog, we also wrote about the Indiana Court of Appeals opinion in Staat v. Indiana Dep’t of Transp., in which Chad Staat and Julie Statt (collectively the “Staats”) filed a personal injury lawsuit against 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. In Staat, as in Ladra, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of INDOT finding INDOT immune from liability for a temporary condition resulting from weather under the ITCA. However, in Staat, unlike in Ladra, the Court of Appeals reversed, finding there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the roadway condition was temporary so as to entitle INDOT to immunity, and INDOT had not otherwise negated its duty as a matter of law.
The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer in Ladra and in a divided opinion modified its rule in Catt and reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of INDOT on the issue of immunity. The Court’s opinion first reviewed the common-law origins of sovereign immunity, the abrogation of such by Indiana courts, and legislative codification of governmental immunity in the ITCA; second, it analyzed and modified the rule in Catt; third, it discussed why legislative acquiescence and stare decisis do not forbid the Court’s modification of the rule in Catt, with discussion of policy arguments advanced by INDOT; and last, it analyzed the Court’s new rule as to the facts in Ladra, finding a genuine issue of material fact under the Court’s new rule. Under the Court’s new rule, “when the government knows of an existing defect in a public thoroughfare that manifests during recurring weather conditions, and when it has ample opportunity to respond, immunity does not apply simply because the defect manifests during inclement weather.”
The Court in Ladra reasoned that the question as framed in Catt as to whether a condition was “temporary” encompassed only the particular condition causing injury, and thus, by preventing courts from considering the government’s prior negligence in the design or maintenance of a thoroughfare, the rule in Catt effectively granted blanket immunity to the government whenever there was inclement weather, despite the government’s long-standing duty to exercise reasonable care to keep roadways reasonably safe. The Court believed the rule in Catt effectively sanctioned negligent government conduct. The Court reasoned that the ITCA provides immunity when injuries result from a “temporary condition of a public thoroughfare… that results from weather,” but not from government negligence “along with a temporary condition of a public thoroughfare… that results from weather.” While acknowledging that the Court’s new rule effectively merges liability and immunity inquiries with negligence factoring into the analysis, the Court noted that immunity does not apply when a condition or defect in a roadway is “not caused by weather.” As to the facts in Ladra, the Court found they showed that the condition of the roadway resulted from a known problem with the highway drainage system which INDOT had ample time to correct.
On the same day the Indiana Supreme Court issued its opinion in Ladra, the Court also issued an opinion in Staat, in which it, unlike in Ladra, affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment on the issue of immunity. The Court distinguished the cases as Ladra turning on a question of causation, whereas Staat turned on a question of whether the weather condition was “temporary.” The Court noted that immunity under the ITCA as to temporary weather conditions requires two things: the injuries result from a condition (1) that is “temporary” and (2) that is “caused by weather.” In Staat, the Court found the government had established the weather-induced condition continued to worsen at the time of the accident, with the government’s “period of reasonable response,” which extends at least until the condition is stabilized and responses completed, not having expired. Noting the Court’s decision in Ladra, the Court in Staat found no evidence that prior government conduct contributed to or caused the accident. There was an ongoing storm causing flooded roadway conditions, not just a single large puddle, and low visibility, establishing the weather condition had not stabilized. The Staats, in turn, did not put forth any evidence that the road condition had stabilized. As such, the Court found the road condition was “temporary,” and it was the result of weather, not prior government conduct as in Ladra. Therefore, the Court affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of INDOT on immunity.
You can read the Indiana Supreme Court’s opinion in Ladra here.
You can read the Indiana Supreme Court’s opinion in Staat here.