Connecticut Supreme Court rules appellate court incorrectly ruled on sovereign immunity in black ice case

By Gabriel Neves | Dec 3, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) – A decision in the case of an accident allegedly caused by an untreated icy bridge in New London, Conn. was partially reversed by the state's high court.

Chief Justice Richard Robinson, on the panel of the Connecticut Supreme Court, issued a 21-page ruling on Nov. 20, partially reversing part the Appellate Court decision in the lawsuit filed by Barry Graham against the Connecticut Commissioner of Transportation.

Robinson highlighted in the ruling that "the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the waiver of sovereign immunity set forth in section 13a-144 could extend to the failure of the state police to close the bridge under the facts of the present case, and, accordingly, improperly reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the defendant with respect to that claim: strictly construed, section 13a-144 waives sovereign immunity for the actions of state employees performing duties related to highway maintenance, but only to the extent that the plaintiff proves that a relationship exists between the commissioner and the state employee such that the commissioner could be found to have breached his statutory duty to keep the highways, bridges, or sidewalks in repair."

He also added that "the limited evidence in the record concerning the usual procedures of the state police and their duty to report highway defects was insufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the existence of such a relationship between the state police and the commissioner."

Robinson reversed the Appellate Court's decision regarding section 13a-144 and remanded it back to the Appellate Court with instructions to affirm the trial court's judgment regarding that claim.

Graham sued the commissioner due to injuries he allegedly suffered while driving on a highway during the winter and alleged it was not properly maintained.

As stated in the ruling, Graham "alleged that he had sustained injuries as a result of a motor vehicle accident on an interstate bridge that was caused by untreated black ice and that, before that accident occurred, the state police had informed the Department of Transportation of numerous other ice related accidents on the same bridge."

Graham also claimed, per the ruling, that "the commissioner had breached his statutory duties under section 13a-144 by failing to treat the ice, to warn approaching motorists, or to close the bridge."

The trial court awarded summary judgment to the commissioner, claiming the response was reasonable as a matter of law.

Justices Andrew McDonald, Maria Kahn and Christine Vertefeuille concurred with the judgment.

A dissenting opinion was issued by Justice Gregory D'Auria, who stated that "we are particularly reluctant to overrule our precedents when they involve questions of statutory interpretation on the ground that the legislature is free to alter the statute to correct what it believes is a misinterpretation," regarding previous cases in which decided in favor of the public authorities. The ruling stated the dissenting judges would affirm the Appellate Court's ruling.

Justices Richard Palmer and Raheem Mullins joined in the dissenting opinion. 

Connecticut Supreme Court case number SC 19867

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