MICHAEL CUMMINGS et al. v. CONNECTICUT DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION et al., SC 19176

 ELLEN STOTLER, ADMINISTRATRIX (ESTATE OF PAUL A. STOTLER III), et  al. v. CONNECTICUT DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, SC 19177

Judicial District of Hartford

 

      Highway Defects; Sovereign Immunity; Whether Actions Should be Dismissed for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction Because Complaints Failed to State a Cause of Action Under the Highway Defect Statute, General Statutes § 13a-144.  In July, 2005, a truck owned by American Crushing and Recycling, LLC, lost control as it traveled down Avon Mountain on Route 44 and crashed into a number of vehicles.  Michael Cummings was injured in the crash and Paul Stotler was killed.  Cummings and Stotler’s estate brought these actions against the state department of transportation seeking to recover damages under the highway defect statute, General Statutes § 13a-144.  The complaints alleged that Route 44 coming over Avon Mountain into Avon suffered from defects in its design in that, because of its steep grade and lack of adequate safety measures, it was not reasonably safe for public travel.  The defendant moved to dismiss the suits, arguing that they were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity because the complaints merely alleged common-law negligence rather than the existence of a defect within the scope of § 13a-144.  The trial court denied the motions to dismiss, interpreting the complaints as alleging that the plan of design of the roadway, specifically its steep downhill grade, was an intrinsic design defect, which, for trucks, created an unacceptable risk of brake failure.  It concluded that the allegations concerning the steep downhill grade brought the actions within the scope of § 13a-144.  On appeal, the Appellate Court (142 Conn. App. 826; 142 Conn. App. 843) disagreed and remanded with direction to dismiss the actions, finding that the complaints did not allege the existence of the type of highway defect that is actionable under § 13a-144.  It found that the complaints did not allege that the roadway was defective solely because of its steep downhill grade but rather alleged that it was defective because of its steep grade and the lack of adequate safety measures, such as a runaway truck ramp, a brake check and additional signage.  The court determined that such safety measures were extrinsic to the roadway and that the lack of safety measures was not actionable under § 13a-144 because such alleged defects were not actually in the roadbed or so near it as to necessarily obstruct or hinder travel.  The Appellate Court also ruled that the allegedly deficient conduct of the defendant concerning training, inspection, maintenance and adherence to proper procedures did not constitute a defective condition in or near the roadway for purposes of the statute.  The court concluded that, because the complaints did not allege a design defect in or near the roadway that obstructed travel, the plaintiffs' claims fell outside the scope of § 13a-144 and were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  In these appeals, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Appellate Court properly concluded that the actions should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because the allegations in the plaintiffs’ complaints failed to state a cause of action under the defective highway statute.