Judgment for trooper in motorcycle crash suit reversed

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Dave Stafford for www.theindianalawyer.com

A motorcyclist injured in a crash after he attempted to evade a head-on collision with an oncoming state police trooper’s vehicle will have his day in court after the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a trial court ruling for the officer.

Motorcyclist Bryce A. Burton sustained injuries in a crash four years ago in Benton County in northwest Indiana. He was riding southbound on Meridian Road while, coming from the opposite direction, Indiana State Police Trooper Martin Benner attempted to pass a vehicle in front of him.

“…Burton took evasive measures to avoid a head-on collision, resulting in the locking up of the motorcycle’s brakes,” which caused Burton to leave the roadway and sustain injuries, Judge John Baker wrote.

Benner was off duty at the time of the crash, having worked earlier in the day, but at the time of the crash, he was in street clothes driving an unmarked ISP Dodge Charger en route to his son’s baseball game. He was required to and did maintain radio contact in the event of an emergency, and he provided assistance to Burton after the crash. Baker noted ISP authorizes its troopers to engage in “de minimis use of police vehicles for personal matters.”

In response to Burton’s suit, Benner argued he was driving in the scope of his employment. The Benton Circuit Court agreed, granting partial summary judgment and prompting Burton’s successful appeal.

Baker wrote for the panel that the while the facts are undisputed in Bryce A. Burton v. Martin Benner and Indiana State Police, 19A-CT-135, “the inferences that can be made from and conclusions that can be based on those facts are anything but,” making summary judgment erroneous. The COA remanded the case for proceedings at the courthouse in Fowler.

“One reasonable factfinder could look at these facts and easily conclude that Benner was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. Another reasonable factfinder could reach precisely the opposite conclusion,” Baker wrote, relying on Supreme Court guidance from Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000, 1003 (Ind. 2014).

“…Given our standard of review on summary judgment and our Supreme Court’s caution that summary judgment should not be used to ‘short-circuit[] the trial process’ where even a ‘minimal[]’ amount of evidence raises a factual issue to be resolved at trial … we can only find that the trial court erred by entering summary judgment in favor of Benner on this issue.”

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