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Senate approves road builder liability bill

A bill to offer more protections to road builders in Alabama from civil lawsuits was approved in the Senate Thursday and now moves to the House

Senate Bill 159 by is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville. He previously told Alabama Daily News that under current law, companies that build roads and bridges can be sued over their conditions years after they’ve been completed and turned over to local governments or the state to maintain.  

Scofield in a committee meeting earlier this month said the state has sovereign immunity and can’t be sued and local governments have some protections.

“Most of the liability is placed on our road-building partners,” Scofield said. “This bill would give them some relief.” 

He said the new version of the bill approved Thursday is the result of weeks of negotiation between the Alabama Road Builders Association, associations representing Alabama cities and counties and the Alabama Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers.

Skip Powe, executive director of the road builders’ association, said his members have been sued years after their work is completed for things like low shoulders on roads that cause a wreck.

“That’s a maintenance issue,” Powe said.

Meanwhile, many of the companies that build roads in Alabama are small, family owned operations. Lawsuits with six- or seven-figure settlements are burdensome, Powe said.

The original bill said builders wouldn’t be liable for the condition of roads after they were turned over to the authority that contracted for them. The substitute bill as passed by the committee still holds contractors liable if their failure to follow plans and specifications results “in a dangerous condition” or if their work results in a “latent defect” in the project.

The bill removes language about contractors’ liability for work that “creates a condition that should have appeared, to a reasonably prudent contractor, to be a dangerous condition.” 

The bill also says there is no presumed liability for a contractor or the body the road belongs to if the driver was distracted, driving more than 25 miles over the speed limit or was intoxicated.

Powe said there have been instances where intoxicated drivers have sued road builders after wrecks and won.

City and county associations were opposed to the original bill because of concerns it would place more liability on them. They are at least neutral on the newest version. 

“The substitute version represents a compromise developed over the last six weeks or so,” Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissioners of Alabama, told Alabama Daily News earlier this month. “The bill’s sponsors and (Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Will) Barfoot helped us all become comfortable with a new approach that provides relief for the road builders but includes protections for counties, cities and the driving public.

“I’m not sure anyone is completely happy, which means the bill probably strikes the right kind of middle ground.”

The Alabama League of Municipalities has withdrawn its opposition to the bill, it told ADN.

Erik Heninger, Alabama Association for Justice President, said the association appreciated hearing contractors’ concerns about insurance companies settling lawsuits involving drivers, particularly involving those either intoxicated or texting while operating a vehicle. 

“We hope this negotiated legislation will help these companies continue to find affordable insurance so they can continue building safe roads and bridges for all of us to drive,” Heninger, a partner at the Birmingham firm of Heninger Garrison Davis LLC, told Alabama Daily News.


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