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In 2007, an SUV plowed across the median on Interstate 80 in Parleys Canyon, slamming into a truck driven by Annette Paget. The accident permanently injured Paget and killed her 3-year-old daughter, Alexis. Annette and her husband, Tim, subsequently sued the Utah Department of Transportation, alleging the freeway design contributed to their daughter's death.
In a ruling issued Thursday, the Utah Court of Appeals breathed new life into the lawsuit. A lower court had previously handed a victory to UDOT, ruling that testimony from the Pagets' expert witness was inadmissible. Thursday's ruling sends the case back to the lower court for a trial or other proceedings.
In January 2007 a Woods Cross woman drove her westbound Ford Escape into the Pagets' eastbound F-250 Ford pickup. In addition to killing the Pagets' daughter, the collision severed Annette's right arm and caused internal bleeding and broken bones. She had been scheduled to begin work as a nurse a week later, but losing a hand derailed that plan, Tim Paget, said soon after the accident.
The Pagets' lawsuit alleged UDOT was negligent in designing the freeway because it didn't install a center barrier. UDOT denied that allegation, and both sides called on experts to support their positions. The UDOT expert testified that according to industry standards, a barrier would not have been required at the location of the accident. The Pagets' expert who did not visit the crash site and included incorrect information in his report said a barrier should have been installed.
The judge sided with UDOT, agreeing that the barrier was optional. The judge also ruled that the Pagets failed to prove their expert was reliable or followed industry standards.
The appeals court agreed that the testimony of the Pagets' expert was inadmissible but still sent the case back to the lower court. According to the ruling, UDOT wasn't entitled to victory just because the Pagets' expert was not reliable.
"UDOT was required to demonstrate that its decision not to construct a median barrier was reasonable as a matter of law," the decision states, implying that such a demonstration never occurred.
Thursday's decision gives the Pagets another chance to keep fighting, but it isn't a clear victory for either side. Assistant Attorney General Peggy Stone, who represented UDOT in the appeal, pointed out Thursday that the Pagets still can't use their expert and UDOT may consequently ask for summary judgment again.
Stone added that while the accident was "horrific," UDOT wasn't to blame.
"Obviously UDOT is sad that this happened, but it doesn't feel like the accident was its fault," she said.
Attorneys representing the Pagets did not immediately return phone calls Thursday.