May 19, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Snowplow is Motor Vehicle so Immunity Under CGIA Waived

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Roper v. Carneal on Thursday, February 12, 2015.

Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction—Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Tort Claims— “Motor Vehicle” Versus “Special Mobile Machinery.”

Carneal, an El Paso County employee, was driving a county-owned snowplow when he allegedly failed to stop at a stop sign. Plaintiff, Roper, drove off the road to avoid Carneal and crashed, suffering personal injuries and damage to her car. She filed this action against Carneal and the Board of County Commissioners of El Paso County (County Board), alleging claims of negligence per se, negligence, respondeat superior, and property damage/loss of use.

Defendants moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing they were immune from suit under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). The CGIA generally bars tort-related claims against public entities and employees, but waives immunity for a public employee’s operation of a motor vehicle under certain circumstances. Defendants argued the snowplow was “special mobile machinery” rather than a “motor vehicle,” and therefore the motor vehicle waiver of immunity did not apply.

The district court denied the motion to dismiss based on the nature of the vehicle (a modified dump truck with seats for two but generally driven by one operator and used exclusively on county roads to remove snow and ice). Defendants filed this interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the statutory definitions of “motor vehicle” and “special mobile machinery” and concluded the snowplow in this instance was a “motor vehicle”; therefore, governmental immunity was waived. The Court noted that a “motor vehicle” under CRS §42-1-102(58) must be designed primarily for travel on the public highways and generally and commonly used to transport persons and property over the public highways. The undisputed evidence was that the snowplow was a dump truck designed to remove snow and ice from the public highways by traveling on them. The Court found that a vehicle need only transport persons or property, despite the use of “and” in the statute, because requiring transport of both persons and property would be “absurd and unreasonable.” It further held that carrying sand and salt constituted transporting property.

The Court also held that the definition of “special mobile machinery” requires a finding that the vehicle is “only incidentally operated or moved over public highways.” Because it was exclusively driven over the public highways, the snowplow did not meet this requirement. The order was affirmed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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