Over objections from defense attorneys who say it goes too far, a bill to make it more difficult to sue the state over poor road design or conditions that contribute to crashes was endorsed unanimously Tuesday by the Senate Transportation Committee.
The sponsor of SB50, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said fiscal analysts figure the state could lose $1 million a year in lawsuits without the bill.
He said it is made necessary by a Utah Supreme Court decision last year which he said made it easier to sue the state anytime a dangerous condition exists. It arose out of a 2004 accident in Layton where victims say the state should have had a barrier on Interstate 15 to stop cars from crossing into opposing traffic.
The bill says the Utah Department of Transportation shall exercise "reasonable care in designing, constructing and maintaining a state highway in a reasonably safe condition." But it said that nothing in UDOT's defined responsibilities shall be construed "as creating a private right of action, or expanding or changing the department's common law duty for liability purposes."
But Roger Christensen, the defense attorney in the Layton crash case, called the bill "vague and overly broad," and said it would mean that when UDOT "becomes aware of a safety problem, it has no obligation to address it reasonably."
The Utah Association for Justice also said the bill appears to give the state too much power to avoid lawsuits over road design and conditions.
But Committee Chairman Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said without the bill, the state would "allow lawsuits to determine where we are going to repair" problems, rather than figuring how far available money can stretch to meet needs. He said that would "create chaos."
The bill now goes to the full Senate.