Maine High Court Says DOT not Immune from Crash Lawsuit

April 30, 2009

Maine’s highest court has ruled that the Maine Transportation Department is not immune from a lawsuit filed by a motorist who was blinded when he crashed his car into the back of a dump truck parked in a repair zone.

The lawsuit filed by John and Karen Jorgensen, of Phippsburg, sought unspecified damages for the October 2006 accident. The Department of Transportation argued that state law protected it from liability.

In a unanimous ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said the state can claim immunity when a complaint involves employees making policy decisions with relatively broad implications.

But in this case, the court ruled that immunity doesn’t extend to “on-the-ground decisions” such as where to place barricades or cones or to park vehicles in repair zones, said Berney Kubetz, the Jorgensens’ attorney.

The chief counsel for the Transportation Department was unavailable for comment. An assistant attorney general who argued the case before the supreme court did not immediately return phone calls.

The Transportation Department closed one lane while working on Route 209 in Phippsburg when John Jorgensen drove into the repair zone. Jorgensen, apparently confused because there were no barricades or cones between the closed and open lanes, crossed back into the closed lane and crashed into the truck.

Besides losing sight in both of his eyes, Jorgensen suffered multiple fractures, head trauma and internal injuries, Kubetz said.

The suit claimed the Transportation Department was negligent in its traffic control plan in the repair zone.

Tuesday’s ruling affirmed a decision by a Superior Court judge who had denied the department’s motion to have the suit thrown out. The high court’s ruling means the lawsuit can now proceed, said Kubetz, an attorney with the Eaton Peabody law firm.

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