Lawsuit against Columbus over crosswalk headed toward trial

Although the city of Columbus has immunity from the policy decisions that may have contributed to a 13-year-old’s injuries when he was struck by a vehicle in a city crosswalk, genuine issues of material fact remain that preclude the city from being awarded summary judgment in a lawsuit, a divided Indiana Court of Appeals has held.

As part of his daily walk to his bus stop each morning, 13-year-old Jalen Lee was required to cross Marr Road, a minor artery in Columbus that is marked by high-visibility crosswalk markings, reflective signs and two speed limit signs in either direction. However, the signs offered different guidance – one called for 20 miles per hour, while the other established a speed limit of 30 miles per hour.

One morning in March 2013, a pickup truck driven by Kyle McLeod, who did not see any students attempting to cross Marr Road, drove through the crosswalk and struck Lee, who had believed he had enough time to cross the road before McLeod’s truck came near. As a result of the accident, Lee sustained multiple injuries, including cracked ribs and a collapsed lung.

In January 2015, Lee filed a complaint against the city of Columbus, alleging that it was negligent in performing its duties to students who utilized school buses for transportation to Central Middle School, where Lee was a student, and that such negligence proximately caused the accident and his injuries. Additionally, Lee argued the city had “negligently failed to take reasonable measures to warn pedestrians utilizing the Crosswalk and drivers on Marr Road of the particular dangers of the Crosswalk so as to reasonably mitigate the known dangers of the Crosswalk,” thus proximately causing his injuries.

The city moved for summary judgment in March 2016, arguing it did not breach its duty of reasonable care or proximately cause the accident or Lee’s injuries. The city also maintained it was entitled to statutory immunity as a governmental entity, and common law immunity. Additionally, the city held that Lee’s claim was barred by his own contributory negligence.

The Bartholomew Circuit Court entered summary judgment in the city’s favor, finding that Lee, based on his “age, his knowledge, his judgment, and his experience” was contributorily negligent as a matter of law. Lee then appealed, arguing the trial court had erred.

A divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in the city’s favor Tuesday, holding that there were genuine issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment on the basis of Lee’s contributory negligence.

Specifically, Judge Patricia Riley wrote that Lee and his friend both testified that they believed there was enough time for them to cross the road before McLeod’s truck approached, and that McLeod could have been traveling as fast as 35 to 40 miles per hour. Thus, the appellate panel found that Lee “may have acted reasonably in entering the crosswalk.”

However, the Court of Appeals also found that based on precedent in Lee v. State, 682 N.E.2d 576, 577 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), the city of Columbus was entitled to discretionary function immunity because the designated evidence demonstrated that the city was in the process of making improvements to the Marr Road crosswalk, specifically the installation of flashing lights. Additionally, Riley said the city is subject to immunity from its decision not to place a crossing guard at the Marr Road crosswalk and for “any failure to adopt or enforce a law,” such as a speed limit, under Indiana Code 34-13-3-3(8).

Nevertheless, the speed limit signs posted at the crosswalk conflicted with one another, and “the city offers no basis under the (Indiana Tort Claims Act) that would grant it immunity if it posted an incorrect speed limit sign,” Riley wrote. Thus, the question of whether the city breached its duty to “exercise reasonable care in the maintenance and regulation of public roadways is a question of fact that should be determined by a jury.” Further, if the city did breach its duty, then there remains a question of fact as to whether that breach proximately caused the accident and Lee’s injuries, the majority found.

However, Judge Terry Crone dissented, writing in a separate opinion that “if a plaintiff who files a tort claim against a governmental entity, such as the City, ‘is negligent to even a small degree and that negligence proximately contributes to his claimed damages, contributory negligence will operate as a complete bar to his action.’” Additionally, Crone said he would affirm summary judgment to the city “on the basis that any negligence on the City’s part with respect to the speed limit signs did not proximately causes Lee’s injuries as a matter of law.”

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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