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This isn't what we meant when we asked about adopting a highway

Over the years newspapers in New York State have reported on the state's practice of charging motorists for repairs to guardrails. The stories follow a pattern: There is a one-car accident that results in damage to a guardrail along a state highway. The driver files a police report. Months later, the driver receives a bill from the Department of Transportation for the cost of repairing the guardrail.

In one woman's case from 2010, the damage to the guardrail was minimal. One bolt, she said. The state billed her $664.57. (Fully two-thirds was for labor.) The article discussing her experience noted that the practice is big business for the state. In 2008, the state received $12.3 million from motorists and insurers as payment for damaged guardrails, road signs, bridges and other roadside property owned by the state. Almost three-quarters of the total was for guardrail repairs.

It was odd that a day or two after coming across these articles about New York we came across another about a lawsuit in Indiana over the same practice. A trucking company recently sued the state over a bill for repairing damage to the guardrail and pavement caused by a fatal crash involving one of the company's trucks. The total was more than the New York woman's; the state wants $60,000 from the trucking company.

The company argues that the state is charging for services that taxes have already paid for. As one of the company's attorneys wrote, "[T]axpayers should not be asked to fund the same government functions twice." And even though the trucking company is not based in Indiana, it pays taxes for the privilege of doing business there. The company points out, too, that repairs to that stretch of road were already scheduled before the accident happened.

The state counters that the payment is for damage caused by negligence, not routine repairs. The state just wants to be reimbursed for damages above and beyond normal wear and tear.

The trial court found for the state. The company has appealed that decision. And, in the meantime, the state has ramped up its efforts to collect similar payments from motorists across the state.

Is the court right? If Joe hits Fran's fence with his car, Fran has the right to ask Joe to pay for repairs, doesn't she? But Joe isn't paying Fran for regular maintenance. What do you think?

Source: Insurance Journal, "Trucking Company Seeks Limit on Suits over Indiana Highway Repair Costs," July 23, 2014Syracuse.com, "New York's guardrail policy: You bent it, you bought it," Charley Hannagan, Sept. 19, 2010

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