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State Exempt From Lawsuit in Wrongful Death Case, Wyoming's Highest Court Rules

It's unfortunate when someone dies as a result of an accident. But, it's even more tragic when it seems like the accident could've been prevented. For example, when a 7-year-old girl was killed by a driver who had a valid driver's license despite also having a visual handicap, it would seem like the license issuing authority should be held responsible. Well, according to the Wyoming Supreme Court, the state transportation department is exempt from being sued for wrongful death.

The Case that Led to This Decision

In 2015, Sandra Pennock, who was 78 at the time, was driving through Riverton when she hit Sophia Archer, who died as a result of the accident. Pennock had glaucoma in one eye and her other eye was a glass eye, but was driving with a valid driver's license as she had successfully completed a Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) eye exam. Although Pennock indicated that she never saw the girl, she plead guilty to vehicular homicide and was sentenced to one year in jail.

Why the Family Sued the Government

Sophia's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Fremont County School District No. 25, the City of Riverton, WYDOT, and employees of these agencies. However, a district court judge dismissed the wrongful death claims in 2016. The district court judge ruled that WYDOT and the City of Riverton were protected from the family's legal action under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act, which grants the government immunity from most civil lawsuits. This Wyoming law provides certain exemptions (such as for the improper operation of electricity, water service, or gas), but generally prevents local and state agencies from lawsuits for damages.

The family appealed the decision to the Wyoming Supreme Court, but that court agreed with the district court's ruling. Although the Wyoming Supreme Court stated that the eye exam administered by WYDOT "would have been impossible for [Pennock] to pass," the court ruled that the eye exam was not exempted from the law. The Archer family argued that since Riverton provided the crosswalk where Sophia was killed, it served as a public utility.

The Wyoming Supreme Court disagreed, stating that "providing a crosswalk is not a public service for which the state Legislature chose to waive governmental immunity." The court additionally noted that the state law specifically protects the government from liability when there are defects in the design of roads.

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