Immunity of State of New Mexico for Unsafe Road Turns on Distinction Between Design and Maintenance
The New Mexico Supreme Court recently reviewed the New Mexico Department of Transportation‘s immunity for the design and maintenance of the State‘s roadways. The court in Martinez v. New Mexico Department of Transportation was called upon to determine the line between immunity for the design of roadways and the potential liability under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act for the failure to maintain the roads in a safe condition.
The case involved a 2004 automobile accident where the first car carrying two occupants (one of which was pregnant) was traveling west on New Mexico Route 502. The second was weaving in and out of traffic, heading in the opposite direction when he lost control and struck the first car. There were no survivors in either vehicle.
Route 502 has sections with and sections without center barriers. The area where the accident occurred did not have a center barrier. Instead, the road had a central “turning lane,” which was a two-way, turn-only lane.
As a result of the crash, the parents and grandparents of the westbound car brought a lawsuit against the New Mexico Department of Transportation for wrongful death and loss of the ability to have a relationship with the deceased, also known as loss of consortium. The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Transportation was negligent for failing to place a center barrier on this section of Route 502.
The New Mexico Tort Claims Act covers what is known as state‘s “sovereign immunity.” In short, the Tort Claims Act prevents anyone from bringing lawsuits against the state unless they fall under specific exceptions. The Tort Claims Act includes an exception allowing lawsuits against the government for damages or injuries for failing to maintain highways. However, it also specifically indicates that the state does have immunity for damages caused by planning or design defects. As a result of the Act‘s exception to immunity for maintenance, but not for planning or design defects, the question in this case became whether the Department of Transportation‘s decision not to place a center barrier at the accident location should be considered maintenance or design.
On appeal from the trial court, the Court of Appeals used a very narrow definition of the term “maintenance” in finding that the New Mexico Department of Transportation had immunity and could not be sued in this case. However, the New Mexico Supreme Court took a different view.
The Supreme Court took the Court of Appeals to task for focusing too much on how significant an undertaking it would be to erect concrete barriers on this section of highway, instead of looking at all of the options the Department of Transportation had at its disposal to make the highway less dangerous. For example, instead of the difficult and costly concrete barriers, the Supreme Court noted that the Department of Transportation could have erected cable barriers or created a grassy island.
The Department of Transportation‘s duty to maintain New Mexico‘s highways includes an inherent duty to correct any dangerous conditions, whether or not they were caused by a design defect. In this case, even though the Department of Transportation cannot be sued for their alleged defective design, they are still responsible for maintaining the highway, including the correction of any safety issues.
It is immaterial whether the Department‘s correction is a permanent one, like the installation of concrete barriers, or a temporary one, like placing moveable barriers; the Department‘s maintenance obligation does not change. As a result, the Court of Appeals was reversed and the case was sent back to the district court for a new trial. Evidence to be presented to the jury would include both the knowledge of the Department of Transportation of the dangerous condition along with the reasonableness of remedial measures to make the road more safe.
The case is a good one for New Mexico drivers. It should help to insure that the State continues to improve the safety of its roadways. Potential liability for cases such as these should provide some incentive to correct known dangerous conditions rather than resting in the comfort of immunity for poorly designed roads.
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