Friday, June 19, 2015

Of all things, a corn mash spill could make it easier to sue your Nebraska fire department

The corn mash is in the foreground.

Pick it up, clean it up, do it right and keep it safe. Local governments in Nebraska… from city hall to your volunteer fire department… will need to make sure hazards on roads and public spaces get taken care of completely.   

In a ruling issued today the Nebraska Supreme Court narrowed the protection of immunity local government has against personal injury lawsuits.

I covered the story of Kaelynn Kimminau of Hastings this spring for NET News. The Adams County District Court threw out her lawsuit against the City of Hastings fire department and its rural volunteer counterpart. She claimed they hadn’t properly cleaned corn mash spilled from an open truck picking up the sloppy leftovers from a local ethanol plant. Firefighters on the scene had pushed the corn mash off to the shoulder. The accident occurred a full day after the original spill.

Did the fire department act negligently? In its opinion the Supreme Court says at the very least the judge in Adams County should not have dismissed the case even before hearing the evidence. The court ruled local governments do not have immunity from lawsuits when an emergency scene clean up may have been responsible for later injuries or harm. 

As the justices wrote in today's opinion, they don’t read state statute covering these matters “as provid­ing immunity to a political subdivision with respect to a claim alleging it took inadequate measures to repair a spot or localized defect of which it had notice.” 
In this case, the firefighters had been told of the problem the day before the accident. The possibility they didn’t clean the corn mash mess at the time takes away automatic protection from lawsuits. The implications? Attorneys NET spoke with before today’s ruling wondered if a ruling against the City of Hastings would mean in the future it could apply to emergency crews not picking up debris from a traffic accident or not making full repairs on a public building.

The case has been sent back to Adams County District Court where Kaelynn Kimminau will have the opportunity to argue the City of Hastings was the blame for the accident. That has not been resolved.  In fact the Supreme Court justices made the point of adding:
We do not comment on the merits of the Kimminaus’ claims against the political subdivisions, includ­ing questions with respect to duty, as those issues have not yet been addressed by the district court.
Read the court’s full opinion HERE.