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Governmental immunity: Double standard?

  • SIMA
- Posted: April 4, 2012
By Cheryl Higley

Frank Palumbo, a Schenectady, NY, resident found himself on the wrong end of an accident with a New York Department of Transportation plow truck. He was passing the truck on the left when the driver crossed the center lane, hitting Palumbo’s car. The plow driver did not stop, but Palumbo called 911 and it was determined by the responding officer that the DOT plow driver was at fault.

Palumbo filed a claim with the state’s insurance department to recoup the costs of damage to his vehicle. The claim, however, was denied per the state’s Section 1103 of NYS Vehicle and Traffic law, which states: “Maintenance forces, while engaged in highway snow and ice control operations are exempt from the rules of the road.”

According to Patrick McGuiness, an attorney for Zlimen & McGuiness, PLLC, in ST. Paul, MN, governmental immunity in these types of cases is common in the United States (the extent varies state by state). Government officials and employees, he said, are granted official immunity from tort claims that arise from snowplow accidents. Officials can still be held responsible in incidents involving “ministerial duties”—but as long as the driver was performing a specific duty “within the standards set by his employer” and negligence couldn’t be proven immunity would apply.

“You could argue that a driver plowing outside the lanes is not a ‘standard’ set by the employer,” McGuiness explained. “In this instance it’s cheaper to just pay your deductible than to hire an attorney to fight it.”

If a similar accident occurred that involved a private snow & ice management contractor—and it has—this same immunity does not apply. Is there—and should there be—a double standard for governmental entities? 

Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine.
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