Although the State had contracted with a municipality for the maintenance of a state-owned highway, the State still bore “the ultimate responsibility for inspecting and maintaining [the highway],” and “the contract did not absolve the State of potential liability for failing to do so.” Denial of the State’s motion for summary judgment in this GTLA case was thus affirmed.
In Polhamus v. State, No. E2021-012553-COA-R9-CV, 2022 WL 1788380 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 2, 2022), plaintiff was injured when he crashed his motorcycle after hitting a pothole on a state-owned highway. Although the State owned the highway, it had contracted with the City of Kingsport to maintain the highways.
Plaintiff filed claims against the State in the Division of Claims Administration and the City in circuit court, alleging that “the State and City were negligent for permitting the condition to exist without repair.” The claims were consolidated, and both defendants moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the City’s motion, ruling that the City’s immunity was not removed under the GTLA because “the City did not own the roads where Plaintiff’s accident occurred.” The court, however, denied the State’s motion, finding that “to hold that both the State and the City were immune from suit would be against public policy.” On this interlocutory appeal filed by the State, this ruling was affirmed.
In Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a), the GTLA removes immunity for governmental entities “for claims arising from the negligent maintenance of and dangerous conditions on state highways.” Here, the State argued “that it owed no duty to Plaintiff because it delegated responsibility for maintaining the relevant portions of [the highways] to the City of Kingsport under Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 54-5-201 and -203.” The Court rejected this argument.
After looking to the contract and the statutes at issue here, the Court of Appeals reasoned:
Having closely reviewed the State’s contract with the City of Kingsport, we find nothing in the contract or in §§ 54-5-201 and -203 that authorizes the State to delegate its responsibilities under § 9-8-307(a)(1)(I). On the contrary, § 54-5-201 expressly provides that “the state’s obligation for maintenance of its system of highways shall be governed by those limitations now set out by law, it being the intent of this section neither to enlarge nor to diminish present obligations for this maintenance.” Although the contract purportedly limits TDOT’s liability for injuries caused by the City’s performance, it does not and cannot limit the State’s liability for injuries caused by the State’s negligence in failing to inspect or maintain the roads as prescribed by § 54-5-201.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 54-5-201 permits the State to delegate its responsibility to maintain state highways routed over city streets. But it also makes clear that “the state’s obligation for maintenance of its system of highways shall be governed by those limitations now set out by law, it being the intent of this section neither to enlarge nor diminish present obligations for this maintenance.” Thus, we find the State’s contract with the City did not relieve the State of its responsibilities under § 9-8-307(a)(1)(I) and (J).
(internal citations omitted). Accordingly, denial of the motion for summary judgment was affirmed.
This is an important case in the area of State responsibility for road maintenance and dangerous road conditions, as it appears to be the first state court case addressing the effect of the State’s decision to contract with another entity for road maintenance on potential liability under the GTLA.
This opinion was released 1.5 months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 41, Section 21 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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