Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford. Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford. Courtesy Photo

By a narrow 4-3 ruling, the Connecticut Supreme Court has clarified a law related to the sovereign immunity of the state when dealing with highway-related injuries.

On Nov. 20, the state’s high court reversed in part and affirmed in part the judgment of the Connecticut Appellate Court, which had granted summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner of Transportation in a case brought by motorist Barry Graham. It found that Graham’s personal injury action was barred by sovereign immunity under the state’s Highway Defect Statute.

Graham, who was seriously injured on Interstate 95 when his pickup truck slid on black ice and crashed into a structure on a state bridge in 2011, had sued the state Department of Transportation.

But the state Supreme Court held that Commissioner James Redeker couldn’t be held liable for the state police’s failure to close the bridge.

In its 21-page ruling, the high court said there was no evidence the requisite relationship existed between the commissioner and the state police, and therefore the commissioner and the Department of Transportation aren’t liable.

“We disagree with the plaintiff’s argument that the waiver of sovereign immunity under Connecticut General Statutes 13a-144 extends to the actions of any state employee without regard to that employee’s relationship to the commissioner,” Chief Justice Richard Robinson wrote. “Extending 13a-144 to include the negligence of any state employee, not otherwise engaged in highway maintenance … constitutes an expansion of potential liability on the state that is not within the clear reach of the statute.”

Robinson wrote that the “floodgates would open, and the commissioner could well be held liable for the actions of any state employee regardless of his or her affiliation with the department” if the statutes were to take away sovereign immunity for the commissioner with regard to any state employee that the commissioner oversees. “That would be far too broad,” Robinson wrote.

Graham’s lawsuit, though, alleging negligence by the DOT, is not affected by the state high court’s ruling and is still pending.

In the dissent, Justice Gregory D’Auria wrote: “Although the majority indicates it is reaching only the first certified question—sovereign immunity—and not the second certified question—duty—I believe it has mixed the concepts of sovereign immunity and duty.”

D’Auria continued: “I believe blending these distinct doctrines will thwart injured parties seeking to vindicate statutory rights in a way the Legislature did not intend.”

Graham was represented by Ralph Monaco and Eric Garofano, both with the New London-based Conway, Londregan, Sheehan & Monaco. Neither Monaco nor Garofano responded to a request for comment.

The Commissioner of Transportation was represented by Lorinda Coon, of Hartford’s Cooney, Scully & Dowling. Coon did not respond to a request for comment.

Judd Everhart, director of communications for the state Department of Transportation, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.