PA High Court: No Immunity for PennDOT in Guardrail Injury Claims

Street barrier - guardrail

You lose control of your car on a roadway in Pennsylvania and slam into a guardrail. The guardrail pierces your car and you’re injured. Can you sue PennDOT?

Yes, you can, says the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In a recent ruling, the high court held that sovereign immunity doesn’t protect the state against lawsuits that allege poorly designed, installed or maintained guardrails. Cagey v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation involved a claim for damages resulting from an accident on an icy highway.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Cagey upends 10 years of Commonwealth Court case law. That court has ruled the state immune from such lawsuits — starting in 2008, with Fagan v. Department of Transportation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The rulings cited the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Dean v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation.

But Dean was not about the design, installation or maintenance of guardrails, the Supreme Court says in Cagey. It was about whether the state is obligated to install guardrails. (It is not, according to Dean.)

Instead, the question in Cagey was this: If there is a guardrail, can PennDOT be sued over injuries blamed on the guardrail? And the Supreme Court’s answer is yes, it can.