The Connecticut Supreme Court has dismissed two lawsuits that were brought against the state by victims of the 2005 fiery crash at the bottom of Avon Mountain that killed four people and injured 19 others.
The plaintiffs alleged that the hilly portion of Route 44 where the accident occurred was designed so that the road was dangerously steep and lacked adequate safety measures. However, the justices ruled that the alleged poor design of the road and lack of warning signs and other safety measures did not make the roadway “defective” under Connecticut’s highway defect statute.
In the 5-1 ruling, Chief Justice Chase Rogers wrote that the allegations did not fall within the exemptions to the state government’s basic immunity from lawsuits. If allowed to bring suit in this case, Rogers opined that the plaintiffs’ argument would lead to a plethora of lawsuits over road design, defeating the original purpose of the highway statute, which was to limit the state’s liability.
“Under the theory of liability the plaintiff advocates in the present case, virtually every design defect claim pertaining directly to the layout of the road would be actionable under the defective highway statute,” Rogers wrote in the Stotler v. Department of Transportation decision. The court decided a companion case, filed by another injured party, in the same manner.
There has long been debate over what constitutes a defective road under the state statute. Most courts have interpreted the statute to cover instances only when a highway or adjacent structure — such as a sign post — is in disrepair. But in this case Ellen Stotler and Michael Cummings, who were badly injured in the crash, contended the basic design of the road and the lack of safety features made it unsafe for public travel.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs claim that there should have been a brake check area at the top of the mountain and a runaway truck ramp at the bottom. A ramp was added by the state in 2008, three years after the crash.
On July 29, 2005, the brakes on a dump truck failed and it barreled out of control down the steep road, slamming into a bus and 18 cars during a fiery chain-reaction crash. Thirty people altogether were involved in the crash, 15 of whom were taken to the hospital. Among the four who died were Paul Stotler, of Avon, the husband of the plaintiff, Ellen Stotler, in the Supreme Court case.
David Wilcox, an owner of the Mack truck, was charged with manslaughter after a yearlong investigation. Investigators blamed the crash on the shoddy maintenance of the truck and the driver’s inexperience.
Stotler’s family was represented by Joel Faxon of the Faxon Law Group in New Haven. Cummings was represented by Thomas Donohue Jr. of Killian & Donohue in Hartford. “We’re very disappointed” by the Supreme Court ruling, said Donohue. “They cut us off even from a trial on the merits.”
Donohue is hopeful lawmakers step in and clarify the highway defect statute so future claims like this one can get to a jury. “I think it’s a dusty old statute that’s been around for a very long time,” said Donohue. “It’s been a subject of a great deal of judicial interpretation. I hope going forward the legislature will revisit it. It would be helpful for everyone to have a little more clarity as to what are defects and what is actionable and what’s not.”
Ronald Williams Jr., of Williams & Williams in Trumbull, who represented the state, was pleased with the outcome.
“It’s pretty much what I thought [the justices] would do,” said Williams. “They asked pointed questions to the plaintiffs’ attorneys about what exactly is the defect and why is that not a design defect that is barred under the law.”
Justice Dennis Eveleigh was the lone dissenter in both Supreme Court rulings. He wrote that the majority had an “overly narrow interpretation of what may constitute a design defect.”