SALT LAKE CITY — A couple who lost a daughter in a 2007 crash on I-80 can again pursue a lawsuit against the Utah Department of Transportation after a ruling handed down Thursday by the Utah Court of Appeals.
A judge should not have ruled in favor of UDOT simply because the couple's expert testimony had been "properly excluded from the case," the ruling written by Judge Gregory Orme states.
Timothy and Annette Paget sued UDOT after a vehicle crossed into their lane of traffic while on I-80 in Parleys Canyon, killing their 3-year-old daughter, Lexi, and causing Annette Paget to lose an arm. The couple argued that UDOT had been negligent in the design and construction of that section of I-80 and should have erected a median barrier to separate eastbound and westbound traffic.
But a 3rd District judge ruled in favor of UDOT and granted the agency summary judgment after a forensic engineer found that such a barrier was "optional" under federal safety standards at the time of the crash. The judge also found that the Pagets' expert — who argued that a barrier should have been constructed — had been unreliable because he had used "vague and/or inadmissible data" and could not support his opinion "with any published standard that was accepted by the relevant expert community."
Because UDOT has failed to demonstrate anything other than that a median barrier was optional under (federal safety guidelines), it has failed in its burden to prove that its actions in selecting the option it did were reasonable as a matter of law.
–Judge Gregory Orme, Utah Appeals Court
While the Utah Court of Appeals agreed that the testimony of the Paget family's expert should have been excluded, it found that this exclusion did not mean UDOT had proven its case.
"Because UDOT has failed to demonstrate anything other than that a median barrier was optional under (federal safety guidelines), it has failed in its burden to prove that its actions in selecting the option it did were reasonable as a matter of law and that it is entitled to judgement as a matter of law," the ruling states.
The court sent the case back to the trial judge for trial "or other such proceedings as may now be in order."
Assistant attorney general Peggy Stone, who handled the appeal for UDOT, said she was pleased with the court's decision that the testimony from the Pagets' expert should have been excluded, but was disappointed that the case was sent back to the trial court.
"This is, at the end of the day, a case UDOT will end up winning, but this will add an extra step to the case if it goes back," she said. "Not putting a barrier at this site was a reasonable decision."
She said she had not spoken with anyone at UDOT to discuss what to do next in the case but believes it will be difficult for the Pagets to win the case without an expert witness who can show that there was a breach in the standard of care.
"It was a horrific accident and certainly UDOT feels sorry for the family impacted by it," Stone said. "We just don't think it was caused by the fact that the freeway was poorly designed."
An attorney for the Paget family could not be reached for comment Thursday.