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Vanderbloom v. Vermont – Negligent Construction of a Highway

Mistakes in road construction can result in serious injuries to drivers and others. These errors could include things like improper signage, requiring motorists to negotiate a turn that is too sharp or leaving a dangerous condition on the pavement.

The question of who may be held responsible for this depends on a host of factors, though it is possible in some cases to hold liable the construction company that did the work and/or the government agency that contracted the work.

However, the liability of the government is often heavily dependent on local law and the extent to which the doctrine of sovereign immunity is enforced in a particular state. Sovereign immunity shields government from liability unit agrees to be sued. Florida has a broader-than-most waiver of sovereign immunity, but that doesn’t mean cases will be easy.

The recent case of Vanderbloom v. Vermont dealt with the issue of poor road construction, a traffic accident and a lawsuit challenged by sovereign immunity. The case was most recently weighed by the Vermont Supreme Court.

According to court records, plaintiff suffered serious, disabling injuries when in February 2009, she and another vehicle collided on State Route 63 in Vermont. The other driver, who was traveling westbound, crossed the center line and crashed into plaintiff’s vehicle, which was heading the opposite direction.

As a result of this head-on collision, the other driver was killed. Plaintiff suffered permanent injuries.

She later sued the state, alleging it had a duty to exercise reasonable care in the design, construction of maintenance of highways, including this one. In particular, she alleged the state had designed and then constructed a highway shoulder such that it drained water from melting snow and ice into a travel portion of the road. This collection of water is known to refreeze (called “freezeback) and can create a dangerous condition for drivers. This freezeback, plaintiff alleged, was what caused the other driver to lose control, cross the center line and hit her head-on.

Plaintiff argued state waived its sovereign immunity in the state’s tort claims act. However, after the discovery phase of the trial, the lower court granted summary judgment to the state on grounds the claim was barred because statute preserved the state’s sovereign immunity where claims arose from the selection or intentional deviation from standards for planning and design of highways.

The state supreme court affirmed. It noted that while statute does allow lawsuits against the state to proceed in generally the same manner they would against any private individual against whom a finding of liability is sought, there are eight statutory exceptions in Vermont. One of those involves the planning and design of highways.

The standard doesn’t apply where the state intends to follow a particular standard of design for the planning and construction of roads and then fails to do that. However, it does apply when the state intentionally deviates from set standards.

Plaintiff argued there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the state intended to deviate from the standards of the 1960s and 1970s, which was when the highway was designed and built.

However, the state supreme court found she did not meet these standard of proof in producing enough evidence to show the design did not meet the standard and further that this was not the state’s intention.

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Additional Resources:

Vanderbloom v. Vermont , August 2015, Vermont Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Faulty Road Work Signs Cited in Injury-Causing Auto Pileup, Aug. 23, 2015, Orlando Car Accident Attorney Blog

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