Burton v. Benner

Decision Date03 March 2020
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 19S-CT-549
Citation140 N.E.3d 848
Parties Bryce A. BURTON, Appellant, v. Martin BENNER and Indiana State Police, Appellees.
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: Karl L. Mulvaney, Margaret M. Christensen, Nana Quay-Smith, Bingham Greenbaum Doll, LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana, R.T. Green, Kellie C. Clark, Collin W. Green, Blackburn & Green, Indianapolis, Indiana

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Curtis T. Hill, Jr., Attorney General of Indiana, Aaron T. Craft, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 19A-CT-135

David, Justice.

Certain negligent acts or omissions on the part of a government employee have the potential to remove the shield of respondeat superior and expose the employee to personal liability. Under the Indiana Tort Claims Act, there are only a handful of well-delineated pathways to accomplish this task. One of those paths is to show that the employee's act or omission was "clearly outside the scope of the employee's employment." Ind. Code § 34-13-3-5(c)(2).

Here, Bryce Burton attempted to sue Indiana State Trooper Martin Benner in his personal capacity after the two were involved in an accident in rural Benton County. At the time of the accident, Trooper Benner was off duty but was operating his state issued police commission as allowed under State Police policy. Arguing he was acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident, Benner sought summary judgment on whether he could be held personally liable for any damages that flowed from the incident. The trial court awarded summary judgment in favor of Benner because though off duty, Benner was otherwise in substantial compliance with State Police policy in operating his commission and was therefore not clearly outside the scope of his employment. The Court of Appeals reversed, opining that reasonable minds could disagree whether the trooper was outside the scope of his employment and summary judgment was thus inappropriate.

We granted transfer and now find that, although there is some evidence that Trooper Benner was not in strict compliance with State Police policy at the time of the accident, this was not enough to place him "clearly outside" the scope of his employment. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Facts and Procedural History

As of 2015, Indiana State Trooper Martin Benner had been employed by the Indiana State Police for eighteen years. As part of his employment, the State Police issued Benner an unmarked 2012 Dodge Charger—commonly referred to as the trooper's "commission." Troopers that operate State Police commissions are subject to a Standard Operating Procedure that establishes guidelines for the operation of the vehicle when the officer is on- or off-duty and during both emergency and non-emergency driving situations. Under the policy, employees that operate a commission are required, among other things, to maintain radio contact at all times (even while off-duty), to not violate any traffic law unless necessary in performance of official duties, and to respond to emergency situations if they are "assigned or made aware of a nearby situation." (Appellant's App. Vol. 2 at 37-39.) The policy also authorizes employees to exercise de minimis use of their commission for limited and reasonable personal transportation.

On June 4, 2015, Trooper Benner completed his road patrol duties for the day, went home to take a shower, and re-entered his commission to drive to his son's baseball game. Now in street clothes, Benner was traveling southbound on Meridian Road south of State Road 352 in Benton County when he decided to pass the vehicle in front of him after northbound traffic cleared. As he departed the southbound lane, he noticed a motorcycle in the northbound lane approaching him from approximately 139 yards away. Benner quickly slowed his vehicle and moved back into his own lane, but not before the oncoming motorcycle locked its brakes, swerved from side to side, rolled over, and ejected both the operator—Plaintiff Bryce Burton—and Burton's passenger.

Burton filed suit against Benner alleging the trooper was negligent in operating his vehicle and seeking damages for the injuries he sustained in the accident. Benner moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was acting within the scope of employment while driving his commission and was thus immune from personal liability under Indiana Code chapter 34-13-3 (Tort Claims Against Governmental Entities and Public Employees). Benner also alleged that Burton was contributorily negligent so as to bar recovery under the common law.1 The trial court granted partial summary judgment on the first issue in Trooper Benner's favor, finding that he was not "clearly outside" the scope of his employment when the incident occurred.2 After the Indiana State Police was added as a defendant, Benner sought and obtained dismissal of the suit against him in his personal capacity. Burton appealed.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed. Burton v. Benner , 127 N.E.3d 1198, 1200 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019). While the "salient facts [were] undisputed," the Court of Appeals found "the inferences that can be made from and conclusions that can be based on those facts are anything but." Id. Thus, the Court of Appeals concluded summary judgment in favor of Trooper Benner was inappropriate because reasonable factfinders could disagree on whether Benner was acting outside the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. Id.

The State sought transfer, which we granted, thereby vacating the Court of Appeals opinion. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A).

Standard of Review

When this Court reviews a grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment, we "stand in the shoes of the trial court." Murray v. Indianapolis Public Schools , 128 N.E.3d 450, 452 (Ind. 2019) (quoting Campbell Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Company v. Johnson , 109 N.E.3d 953, 955-56 (Ind. 2018) ). We ask, "whether there is a genuine issue of material fact, and whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Goodwin v. Yeakle's Sports Bar and Grill, Inc. , 62 N.E.3d 384, 386 (Ind. 2016) (citation omitted). The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of making a prima facie showing that there is no issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to show the existence of a genuine issue. Id. On appellate review, we resolve "[a]ny doubt as to any facts or inferences to be drawn therefrom ... in favor of the non-moving party." Id.

Summary judgment is appropriate if the designated evidence "shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Ind. Trial Rule 56(C).

Discussion and Decision

Because Trooper Benner raised an affirmative defense that he was immune from personal liability under the Indiana Tort Claims Act ("ITCA"), the issue in this case is whether Benner was acting "clearly outside" the scope of his employment at the time of the accident such that he could be held personally liable for the injuries sustained by Burton. The State urges us to affirm the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of Benner on this issue, while Burton argues there is a genuine issue of material fact that should be decided by a jury.

The ITCA "governs lawsuits against political subdivisions and their employees." Bushong v. Williamson , 790 N.E.2d 467, 472 (Ind. 2003) ; Ind. Code § 34-13-3-1 et seq. The statute sets forth certain parameters to determine liability for negligent acts or omissions on the part of government employees and "provides substantial immunity for conduct within the scope of the employee's employment." Id. "The purpose of immunity is to ensure that public employees can exercise their independent judgment necessary to carry out their duties without threat of harassment by litigation or threats of litigation over decisions made within the scope of their employment." Celebration Fireworks, Inc. v. Smith , 727 N.E.2d 450, 452 (Ind. 2000) (citation omitted). Relevant to the present case, "A lawsuit filed against an employee personally must allege that an act or omission of the employee that causes a loss is ... clearly outside the scope of the employee's employment." Ind. Code § 34-13-3-5(c)(2) (emphasis added).3

Generally speaking, "whether an employee's actions were within the scope of employment is a question of fact to be determined by the factfinder." Knighten v. East Chicago Housing Authority , 45 N.E.3d 788, 794 (Ind. 2015) (citation omitted). When the facts are undisputed and "would not allow a jury to find that the tortious acts were within the scope of employment," however, a court may conclude as a matter of law that the acts were not in the scope of employment. Cox v. Evansville , 107 N.E.3d 453, 460 (Ind. 2018).

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employee's act or omission falls within the scope of employment if the injurious behavior is incidental to authorized conduct or furthers the employer's business to an appreciable extent. Knighten , 45 N.E.3d at 792 (citation omitted). Conversely, "an employee's act is not within the scope of employment when it occurs within an independent course of conduct not intended by the employee to serve any purpose of the employer." Id. (quoting Barnett v. Clark , 889 N.E.2d 281, 284 (Ind. 2008) ). But "an employee's wrongful act may still fall within the scope of his employment if his purpose was, to an appreciable extent, to further his employer's business, even if the act was predominantly motivated by an intention to benefit the employee himself." Id. Ultimately, we have found that "the scope...

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