Under the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” the federal government may not be sued in a lawsuit unless it has waived its immunity or it has consented to the lawsuit. In the context of government construction projects, this frequently shifts the aim for lawsuits squarely upon third-party construction contractors when a plaintiff is injured in a government construction project area.
Recently, the Colorado Court of Appeals further expanded the scope of a contractor’s negligence liability. In 2007, a construction company, Vista Paving Corporation, was commissioned by Grande Junction, Colorado to construct and pave a two-way street and a median. The project took a total of ten days to complete. Upon completion of Vista Paving’s portion, the City officials inspected Vista Paving’s work and authorized them to leave the project. At the time, the street dividing line was not completed, but the City had the obligation of re-striping the road after the completion of Vista Paving’s work.
A few days after Vista had left the project, an auto accident occurred as a result of the road striping not being completed. One of the drivers received injuries from the accident and sued both Grande Junction and Vista Paving. In the lawsuit, the City of Grande Junction was declared immune from the lawsuit and was subsequently dismissed. However, the Court found Vista Paving was liable under a common law negligence claim.
The Court stated that the construction created a “dangerous condition” and that Vista Paving had failed in its obligation to either “eliminate the condition or to warn foreseeable users” of the dangerous conditions within a “reasonable time” after Vista Paving had left the project. The Court further stated that this obligation was extended to Vista Paving “even if its work had been completed and accepted by the City.” While “reasonable time” was not specified by the Court, in this case the accident occurred five days after Vista Paving had left.
The Colorado Court’s decision has the potential to expand party liability for someone who has been injured within a government construction project area. The decision also extends the amount of time that a contractor may be liable for injuries after they have left a project area. For plaintiffs, this is an important development in knowing who may be liable for your injuries. Never assume that if you are injured in a government construction area that there will be no liability due to “sovereign immunity.” Take the time to discuss your situation with an experienced attorney who can help you determine what your options are.