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Supreme Court reinstates wrongful death claim against UDOT

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit filed against UDOT by the parents of a teenage girl who died in 2011 after a state road collapsed in Duchesne County.

In an opinion handed down Friday, the justices said a district court judge erred when he ruled in March 2013 that the Utah Department of Transportation was immune from a lawsuit filed by Heidi Paulson and the parents of Justine Barneck. As part of his ruling, Judge George Harmond also granted UDOT's motion for summary judgment, effectively ending the case.

In reversing Harmond's decision, the Supreme Court held that UDOT failed to prove there were no "genuine issues of material fact" that would need to be decided by a judge or a jury at trial. Due to that failure, UDOT was not entitled to summary judgment, the justices said.

Michael and Linda Barneck, the parents of Justine Barneck, and Paulson allege that negligence by UDOT crews caused state Route 35 to collapse on the night of July 13, 2011. Michael Barneck and Paulson were driving separate vehicles when they each encountered the 30-foot-wide by 20-foot-deep chasm that had formed in the unlit, rural road.

Paulson was critically injured when her sport-utility vehicle plummeted into the void and filled with water, mud and debris. Minutes later, Barneck's SUV vaulted over the gap, crashing hard on the other side. Justine Barneck, 15, was killed. Her father was seriously injured.

The massive washout was caused by runoff from a storm that had moved through the area about 11 hours before the crashes. During the storm, more than an inch of water fell in about an hour on the hills north of the road, according to a meteorologist hired by the Barnecks and Paulson.

All that rain overwhelmed two culverts in the area, sending water and debris across the roadway. A third culvert became blocked entirely, causing a pool of water to form against the north shoulder of state Route 35 that UDOT crews estimated was 16 to 20 feet deep.

It was that section of road that ultimately failed because UDOT did not take adequate steps to either clear the culvert or find another means of eliminating the standing water, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys for UDOT have acknowledged in court filings and oral arguments that the blocked culvert and standing water caused the road to wash out. They have argued, though, that crews chose to manage the flooding by allowing the water to recede on its own.

The state's Governmental Immunity Act bars lawsuits in cases where someone is hurt as a result of the operation of a storm water system or a state agency's management of flood waters. Harmond cited those provisions of the law when he ruled that UDOT was immune from the lawsuit and granted the request for summary judgment.

In its opinion though, the Supreme Court ruled that, while the blocked culvert might be part of a larger storm water system, it could not be considered a storm water system on its own, as attorneys for UDOT have argued.

The high court also held that the Barnecks and Paulson appear to have "properly invoked the waiver of immunity for injuries caused by a defective culvert." Associate Chief Justice Thomas R. Lee, who authored the opinion, wrote that the culvert was defective once it became blocked, creating a substantial risk of injury that was "easily foreseeable."

David M. Bennion, an attorney for the Barnecks, said the Supreme Court's ruling means the case is now likely headed to trial. A date for a scheduling conference in district court had not been set Monday.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik