Indiana’s bills for highway damage faces challenge

WLFI File Photo
WLFI File Photo

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A trucking company wants the state appeals court to limit the Indiana Department of Transportation’s authority to sue over damage done to state highways.

The challenge is in court as the highway agency is trying to collect more from those blamed for property damage, increasing its billing more than 50 percent in the past year to about $7 million, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported.

Tennessee-based Averitt Express Inc. is appealing a ruling by a judge in western Indiana’s Putnam County that it owes almost $60,000 for guardrail and pavement damage from a 2011 crash on Interstate 70 in which a driver for the company was killed.

Averitt maintains that the transportation department’s police of charging for routine highway repair work is illegal because those repairs are already paid for by tax money.

Other courts observe the rule that governments cannot recover the cost of routine functions through civil suits when those costs are already funded through taxation, company attorney Michael Langford wrote in an appeals court brief.

“This rule expresses the common-sense principle that taxpayers should not be asked to fund the same government functions twice,” he said.

Langford said Averitt paid $1.9 million in taxes in Indiana from 2010 to 2013, and also that days before the accident, the highway department contracted for repairs to that same section of I-70, according to the company’s court filings.

While the Legislature authorized the transportation department to recover highway-repair costs arising from violations of size and weight restrictions, there was no such violation in the 2011 crash, according to the company.

The Indiana attorney general’s office argues the state can seek payment for damage caused by negligence regardless of whether a company pays taxes.

Deputy Attorney General Kristin Garn said in a court filing the consequence of Averitt’s argument is “untenable” and cited the Putnam County judge who asked in his ruling, “Does the defendant believe that there is going to be no recovery (for) a municipality when someone (knocks) out a stoplight? The examples could go on and on, but the answer is obvious.”

The appeals court hasn’t yet scheduled oral arguments on the case.

Cities and states commonly bill motorists for damage to their property. Purdue University researchers studied other states’ billing practices in 2010 as part of a project aimed at helping the transportation department become more efficient at recovering the cost of crash damages.

The agency’s intensified collection efforts only increased the chance that someone would mount a serious legal challenge, said Lonnie Johnson, a Bloomington attorney who represents other trucking companies.

“A lot of times a practice will go on for years before anyone has the time or money to take it up on appeal,” he said.

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