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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today

In Putnam County Sheriff v. Pamela Price, an 8-page opinion with two justices concurring in the result via a separate opinion, Justice Rucker writes:

At issue in this case is whether a County Sheriff Department that neither owns, maintains, nor controls a county road nonetheless owes a common law duty to warn the public of known hazardous conditions upon the roadway. We conclude it does not. * * *

On the morning of November 27, 2007, at approximately 7:15 a.m., Pamela Price was driving northbound on County Road 375 West in Putnam County, Indiana. When Price reached a point approximately adjacent to 5852 County Road 375 West, she encountered ice across the roadway. Price lost control of her vehicle which overturned resulting in personal injury and property damage. Earlier that morning, at approximately 5:30 a.m., a different driver lost control of his vehicle at the same location. A deputy of the Putnam County Sheriff Department arrived on the scene at this earlier accident, contacted the Putnam County Highway Department, advised it of the icy condition, and then left the area. Neither Department took any steps to alleviate the icy condition of the roadway or warn the public of the potential hazard. * * *

In its motion to dismiss the complaint Sheriff argued (a) it owed no duty to alleviate or warn motorists of a condition on a county road; and (b) even if it owed such a duty, Sheriff is immune from liability under both Indiana statutory and common law. According to Sheriff its common law immunity arises because the rendering of services – or failing to do so – at an accident scene is “closely akin” to preventing crime, a common law immunity this Court recognized in Benton v. City of Oakland City, 721 N.E.2d 224, 230 (Ind. 1999). Sheriff also posits that its statutory immunity rests on Indiana Code section 34-13-3-3(3) of the Indiana Tort Claims Act (ITCA), which shields a governmental entity from liability for a loss resulting from “[t]he temporary condition of a public thoroughfare or extreme sport area that results from weather.” Ind. Code § 34-13-3-3(3) (emphasis added). The ITCA “allows suits against governmental entities for torts committed by their employees but grants immunity under the specific circumstances enumerated in Indiana Code section 34-13-3-3.” Mangold v. Ind. Dep’t of Natural Res., 756 N.E.2d 970, 975 (Ind. 2001). Affirming the trial court’s denial of Sheriff’s motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals rejected Sheriff’s immunity claims, and also concluded Sheriff had “a common law duty to warn the public of a known hazardous condition.” Price, 930 N.E.2d at 673. * * *

In this case Price’s complaint does not allege that Sheriff owned, operated, maintained, or controlled any portion of County Road 375 West in Putnam County, Indiana. And neither could the complaint reasonably do so. The legislature has specifically charged the county supervisor with the supervision over the maintenance and repair of highways within the county. * * * Absent ownership, maintenance, or control of the county roadway, Sheriff had no duty to warn of a hazardous condition. Instead that obligation rested elsewhere. Because there was no duty, Sheriff was not negligent as a matter of law. * * * Accordingly there were no facts alleged in Price’s complaint under which Price would be entitled to relief as against Sheriff. The trial court thus erred in denying Sheriff’s motion to dismiss under Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6).

We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand this cause with instructions to grant Sheriff’s motion.

Shepard, C.J., and Sullivan, J., concur.
David, J., concurs in result with separate opinion in which Dickson, J., joins. [J. David's opinion begins] I concur in the result reached by the majority. However, I am concerned that the language, “[a]bsent ownership, maintenance, or control of the county roadway, Sheriff had no duty to warn of a hazardous condition,” may be interpreted too broadly.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 6, 2011 10:33 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions