Government and its agencies may be found liable for auto accidents that are caused in whole or in part to defects in highway design or poor maintenance. However, these cases often turn on the issue of whether sovereign immunity is applicable.
Sovereign immunity is the legal doctrine that shields government agencies from liability lawsuits. However, as most courts have agreed that construction and maintenance of roads are proprietary functions (i.e., those that could be carried out by a private entity as opposed to the government), meaning these actions may be subject to liability. But it’s still considered a complex and evolving area of law.
The recent case of McFadden v. Dept. of Transp. before the Iowa Supreme Court was one such case in which negligent highway maintenance was alleged to have played a role a death. Plaintiff’s husband was the decedent.
According to court records, it started with a motorcycle accident. Husband was operating the bike when he lost control of it while navigating a curve. He crashed and died of his injuries.
His widow filed a lawsuit against the state alleging wrongful death. Specifically, she asserted the drop-off between the gravel shoulder and the paved highway was unreasonably steep. This played a substantial role in causing her husband to lose control of the bike and, she alleged, the state department of transportation had a duty to make sure the highway was kept in safe condition – something it failed to do.
Because in that state, claims against the government must first go through the state appeal board. The accident occurred in April 2012. She filed the tort claim with the appeal board in October 2013. In that claim, she failed to identify that she was filing her claim as the representative of her husband’s estate. Per that state’s wrongful death statute of limitations, she had only two years to file a claim. By May 2014, she had heard nothing from the appeal board regarding a final deposition or in fact any action at all.
She withdrew her claim from the appeal board and filed a lawsuit within the district court. That lawsuit identified her as the administrator of her husband’s estate.
The state DOT moved to dismiss the lawsuit because plaintiff hadn’t presented it to the appeal board. By only presenting it in her individual capacity (rather than indicating she represented her husband’s estate) she had not exhausted all administrative remedies.
The district court granted the state’s motion to dismiss and the case was transferred to the appeals court, which also found plaintiff did not exhaust all legal remedies. The state supreme court, however, reversed.
Although she didn’t use the term “administrator” in her filing, this was not a fatal error, as she was in fact the administrator at the time she filed her claim. Now, it may proceed in district court.
There, the question will be to what extent the state had sufficient notice of the alleged safety defect and what was done to repair it or warn travelers about it. In many cases, roadways defects like steep embankments, pavement drop offs and fixed object hazards like traffic barriers, guardrails and posts are generally related to design issues.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
McFadden v. Dept. of Transp., Jan. 22, 2016, Iowa Supreme Court
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