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Monday, October 14, 2019

Juror-turned-plaintiff loses suit after slipping on Delaware courthouse ice

By John Sammon | Nov 18, 2017

WILMINGTON, Del. (Legal Newsline) – A lawsuit filed by a woman against the state of Delaware Office of Management and Budget who sought damages after slipping on ice in a courthouse parking lot was turned back on Oct. 30. The Delaware Superior Court ruled the state was immune from liability.

The court granted a summary judgment in favor of the state.

The suit filed by Sabra A. Horvat resulted from an accident on March 4, 2014, after Horvat parked her vehicle in the parking lot of the Kent County Courthouse on Water Street in Dover, Delaware. Horvat was there for jury duty. The parking lot had been specified as one of three locations in which to park for people summoned to perform jury duty, the court's memorandum opinion states.

The day before, freezing rain and snowfall had fallen to an accumulation of about 7 inches of snow in the city. By the time the Horvat arrived, the parking lot had been cleared of snow, the opinion states.

As Horvat walked toward the courthouse, she alleged she slipped on a patch of ice and snow located at the entrance to the parking lot and fell, suffering a fracture to her leg. She subsequently underwent two surgeries to repair her injuries but is left with moderate permanent impairment of the injured leg, according to the opinion.

The plaintiff’s medical bills were listed at more than $84,902.

The court's opinion stated that although a directive mandates “personnel shall perform all necessary tasks to ensure that assigned areas are cleared of snow and ice in a timely manner," and that insured vehicles plow the snow and salt the pavement, the state disagreed with Horvat's contention that it was liable for the accident.

State officials said the state was immune from liability resulting from strictures covering sovereign immunity, public duty doctrine and the State Tort Claims Act (STCA). Attorneys for the state added the state did not have insurance that covered the accident.

Horvat contended the state’s automobile insurance carrier would cover the loss and so immunity should be waived.

Attorneys for the state countered that while the state does have vehicle insurance, it could only cover losses directly incurred from the use of the covered vehicle, in this case a snow plow.

Horvat claimed it was the snow plow that failed to clear snow that caused her injuries.

The defendants argued that when clearing snow they were under no duty to the plaintiff beyond the duty owed to the public at large. Thus, because the parking lot had been cleared of snow for the public at large and not the plaintiff specifically, there was no special relationship between the plaintiff and the state.

Horvat said the state had a duty to maintain their property in a safe condition and a summons from the state to perform the jury duty constituted a relationship.

Under the STCA the state is immunized from harm unless a plaintiff can prove negligence, bad faith or the performance of a ministerial duty caused the accident. Horvat contended plowing the parking lot was a ministerial duty.

The court however found that the plaintiff had failed to establish harm to be caused while the snowplow was being operated. The complaint centered instead on the methods used in clearing the lot of snow, not the manner in which the plow was used.

The court also stated that the plowing of the lot was dictated not by specific rules, but was left to the judgment of those performing the job and so became a "discretionalry action" making the state immune from liability.

“It is clear that plowing the Kent County Courthouse was a discretionary action; therefore the defendants are immune from the suit under the STCA,” the opinion reads.

The court decided the state was shielded from liability for the plaintiff’s injuries and granted the state's request for summary judgment.            

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Delaware Superior Court