State Supreme Court Reverses Dismissal of Widow’s Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against Department of Transportation

In a decision recently released by the Supreme Court of Iowa, the dismissal of a woman’s wrongful death lawsuit against the state was reversed. The plaintiff in the case of McFadden v. Iowa Department of Transportation alleged that her husband was killed in a crash while driving his motorcycle on a state road that had not been maintained to an adequate standard. She also claimed that the Department of Transportation’s negligence in failing to maintain the road should result in the state government’s liability for his wrongful death.

rocky-mountain-national-park-roads-1390958The Plaintiff’s Husband Dies in a Tragic Accident

The accident that resulted in the filing of the lawsuit occurred on April 25, 2012 in Warren County, Iowa. According to the initial complaint, the man was driving his motorcycle on the highway when he encountered unsafe road conditions while negotiating a curve. The plaintiff claims that her husband was then forced to drive onto the shoulder, where a steep drop off between the roadway and the shoulder caused him to lose control of his motorcycle, after which he was killed. After her husband’s death, the woman sued the Department of Transportation for negligence and wrongful death for failing to maintain the road to a safe standard.

The Trial Court Rejected Her Claim as Improperly Filed, But the State Supreme Court Disagreed

Since the plaintiff was making a claim against a state agency, she was required to follow strict procedures that the legislature established for victims of governmental negligence to collect damages from the state. Generally, the same rules of liability do not apply to governments and their subdivisions as to members of the public, since governments have traditionally been immune from negligence lawsuits under a legal doctrine known as “sovereign immunity.” Iowa passed laws limiting the state’s sovereign immunity but enacted strict procedures that must be followed for a plaintiff to have an injury or wrongful death case heard by the court.

The plaintiff’s claim was initially thrown out by the trial court because she had not followed the proper procedures. On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court found that the lower court’s ruling was in error, and the woman had indeed followed the necessary procedures. As a result, her case was remanded back to the lower court to proceed toward a jury trial or settlement, and the woman may receive compensation for her husband’s death.

Virginia’s Tort Claims Act and the Commonwealth’s Liability for Negligence and Dangerous Conditions

Before 1982, the Commonwealth of Virginia and its political subdivisions (counties, towns, etc.) enjoyed complete sovereign immunity and were not subject to tort liability based on the negligence of government employees or the failure of a government agency or subdivision to maintain a safe roadway or other public thoroughfare. In 1982, the legislature passed the Tort Claims Act, which states: “The Commonwealth shall be liable for claims for money . . . on account of damage to or loss of property or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee while acting within the scope of his employment under the circumstances where the Commonwealth . . ., if a private person, would be liable to the [plaintiff] for such damage, loss, injury or death.” Under this law, the Commonwealth could be held accountable as any employer could for the negligent conduct of an employee acting within the scope of their employment. Maryland and Washington, D.C. have similar sovereign immunity waivers in effect.

The Tort Claims Act Gives Limited Immunity to Municipalities and Their Employees

While the Tort Claims Act eliminated the Commonwealth’s immunity from suit, it preserved a limited immunity for cities and towns, as well as their employees. Municipalities may be sued over a breach of duty regarding a proprietary, but not a governmental, function. Furthermore, an employee of a municipality is immune from liability for negligence while performing discretionary acts but may be liable while performing ministerial acts, such as highway maintenance. The distinctions between the categories are not always clear. It is best to contact a qualified Virginia personal injury attorney who can help advise accident victims whether a government employee, agency, or subdivision may be responsible for damages caused by their negligence.

Have You Been Injured?

If you have been injured or lost a loved one in an accident caused by an unsafely constructed or maintained roadway, or another act of negligence, contact the Virginia, District of Columbia, and Maryland personal injury and wrongful death lawyers at Charles B. Roberts and Associates, PC by calling 703-491-7070 (Virginia) or 888-407-4529 (Maryland and D.C.), or send us a message using our online form. Our experienced legal advocates have the resources and skill to seek the compensation that you deserve. We handle cases and have offices in the entire D.C. Metro area, including Arlington, Fredericksburg, Woodbridge, and throughout Northern Virginia, as well as Southern Maryland.

See More Blog Posts:

Couple Sues Auction House after Wife Injured in Slip-and-Fall Accident, Virginia Injury Lawyers Blog, January 20, 2016.

The Enforceability of Liability Release Waivers in Virginia Courts, Virginia Injury Lawyers Blog, February 3, 2016.