Five years after the State Department of Transportation decided to build a median on a viaduct, Friedman (Plaintiff) was injured in an accident on that viaduct that sent her into oncoming traffic and sued alleging the State (Defendant) was negligent in not building the median.
The State can be held liable for injuries that result from a dangerous highway condition when the State was made aware of the condition and did not take steps to remedy it.
A New York state viaduct did not have a median barrier. The State Department of Transportation studied the issue and determined that one should be built. Five years later, no action had been taken on the median when Plaintiff was sideswiped while driving on the viaduct, pushed into oncoming traffic, and hit head-on. Plaintiff sued for negligence in not building the median and the State argued that the project had fallen prey to funding priorities and project revisions. The trial court found for Plaintiff, the appellate division affirmed, and the State appealed on the grounds of qualified immunity.
Can the State be held liable when it becomes aware of a dangerous condition on one of its highways but does not remedy it?Â
(Alexander, J.) Yes. The State can be held liable for injuries that result from a dangerous highway condition when the State was made aware of the condition and did not take steps to remedy it. The State argued here that the doctrine of qualified immunity applied and that the State’s highway planning and decision-making functions should not be scrutinized by the courts. However, even under the qualified immunity doctrine, a government is liable when its study of a traffic condition is clearly inadequate or where remedial action has been unreasonably delayed. The State has failed to show that the five years since the Department of Transportation decided to build the median and Plaintiff’s accident was a reasonable period of time to formulate a safety plan.
Until recently, the main exception to governmental immunity for states came from constitutional provisions relating to the taking or damaging of private property for public use without compensation. Even when a state has not provided for a way for plaintiffs to bring such a claim, courts have found those constitutional provisions to be self-executing and have allowed the suits to go forward.