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The Connecticut Supreme Court made the right decision Monday in blocking lawsuits filed against the state after the horrific 2005 accident at the bottom of Avon Mountain. In dismissing the lawsuits prior to trial, the justices set a high but reasonable standard when it comes to declaring a state highway defective under state law.
A dump truck with bad brakes lost control as it sped down the steep, 500-foot hill in Avon and smashed through cars paused at a traffic light in the intersection at the bottom. Four people died, including the truck driver, and 19 were injured in the 20-vehicle accident.
The two lawsuits filed on behalf of victims sought to collect damages from the state Department of Transportation for maintaining a dangerous road without adequate safeguards.
There is no question the state DOT could have done more to make the Avon Mountain roadway safer, but the same could be said about many steep or winding roads and exit and entrance ramps. The Supreme Court recognized that had it allowed the lawsuits to proceed to trial, it would have opened the DOT and municipalities to a flood of such lawsuits.
"Virtually every design defect claim pertaining directly to the layout of (a) road would be actionable under the defective highway statute," wrote Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers in the 5-1 decision.
The ruling does not preclude any such lawsuits, but to expose the state to damages "the defective design must result in an actionable hazard in the road that necessarily obstructed travel," wrote Chief Justice Rogers. As an example, the chief justice pointed to a prior case in which a defective drain installed in a roadway caused an accident.
At the time of the accident, signs posted along the hill warned drivers of the steep, 10 percent grade. Since the accident, the DOT has added a runaway-truck ramp, allowing a truck with brake problems to make an emergency exit. The state also upgraded signage.
This terrible accident caused much suffering, but allowing these lawsuits to move forward would have placed unreasonable cost demands on municipalities and the state to design and maintain near-perfect roadways or get sued. Perfect is too high a standard.