The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled on Monday that victims of the 2005 fiery crash at the bottom of Avon Mountain that killed four people and injured 19 others cannot sue the state on allegations that Route 44 had a dangerously steep design and lacked adequate safety measures.
Justices said in a 5-1 decision dismissing two lawsuits that the alleged poor design of the road and lack of warning signs and other safety measures did not make the highway defective under state law. Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote that the allegations did not fall within the exemptions to the state government’s immunity from lawsuits.
A dump truck went out of control down the 500-foot hill in Avon after its brakes failed, causing a 20-vehicle accident at the bottom. The dump truck driver was among those killed.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came in two identical lawsuits against the state Department of Transportation filed by crash survivor Michael Cummings of New Hartford, who suffered multiple broken bones and other injuries, and by Ellen Stotler of Avon, whose husband, Paul “Chip” Stotler, died in the accident.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Cummings’ lawyer, Thomas J. Donohue Jr. “They cut us off even from a trial on the merits.”
Donohue said the state law at the center of the case – the defective highway statute – needs to be clarified by state lawmakers and has been the subject of many court rulings over the years resulting in different interpretations about what does and doesn’t constitute a highway defect over which the state can be sued.
Messages seeking comment were left Monday for Cummings and Stotler.
Ronald Williams Jr., a private lawyer representing the DOT, told the Supreme Court during arguments in April that the road wasn’t defective and signs were posted at the time of the crash warning drivers of the steep, 10 percent grade.
Stotler’s lawyer, Joel Faxon, said state officials knew for years that roads as steep as Avon Mountain should have runaway truck ramps, under recommendations in place since at least 1984 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The state did install a runaway truck ramp in 2008, which was among a series of improvements made after the fatal accident.
“The roadway was very dangerous at the time of this horrific accident and, unfortunately, there’s no remedy against the state for its failure to improve the road despite many, many warnings over the years that a catastrophe could ensue,” Faxon said. “They ignored the warnings until the catastrophe occurred.”
Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh was the lone dissenter in the Supreme Court’s ruling. He wrote that the majority had an “overly narrow interpretation of what may constitute a design defect.”
But Rogers wrote that a ruling in Cummings and Stotler’s favor would “hamstring” the state and municipalities when planning highways and “would eviscerate the general rule precluding liability for design defect claims.”
The dump truck that caused the wreck was owned by a trucking company run by David Wilcox of Windsor, who was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter, assault and insurance fraud. Authorities said Wilcox knew the truck had bad brakes and tried, after the crash, to reinstate insurance on his company’s trucks.
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