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Harrison County Sheriff's Department v. Ayers

Court of Appeals of Indiana

January 31, 2017

Harrison County Sheriff's Department, Appellant-Defendant,
v.
Leandra Ayers, Personal Representative of the Estate of Christine Britton, Deceased, Appellee-Plaintiff

         Appeal from the Floyd Circuit Court, The Honorable J. Terrence Cody, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 22C01-1104-CT-558

          Attorneys for Appellant Elizabeth A. Knight, Byron D. Knight, Lisa A. Baron, Knight Hoppe Kurnik & Knight, Ltd.

          Attorneys for Appellee Matthew J. Schad George A. Budd, V Schad & Schad, P.C.

          Baker, Judge.

         [¶1] The Harrison County Sheriff's Department (the Sheriff) appeals the trial court's denial of its motion to correct error in which the Sheriff argued that it was entitled to judgment on the evidence. The trial court's order came after a jury returned a verdict in favor of Leandra Ayers, representative of the Estate of Christine Britton (the Estate), for $1.2 million. The jury found the Sheriff vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior because Christine's husband, Sheriff's Deputy John Britton, knew that Christine had expressed suicidal thoughts but left her in a room by herself with his gun. The Sheriff argues that there is insufficient evidence, as a matter of law, that John was acting in the scope of his employment during the incident, and that the trial court made several errors in the admission of evidence and in its jury instructions. Finding that John's actions were undertaken in a purely private capacity and had no connection to his employment as a sheriff's deputy, we reverse and remand with instructions to grant the Sheriff's motion to correct error.

         Facts[1]

         [¶2] On March 29, 2009, Christine called her husband, John, to tell him that they had dinner plans that evening. He arrived home after 3:00 p.m., and Christine invited him into bed. After having sex, the couple showered together and spent time watching television. They began to get ready to leave, but they were running late. John asked Christine whether she was "genetically unable to be anywhere on time." Tr. p. 486.

         [¶3] This set off an argument. Christine began by telling John that she always had to do the work around the house, but she quickly progressed to making comments like, "you make me so mad I could kill myself, " to which John responded, "oh whatever." Id. at 488.[2] John called the other couple to let them know that he and Christine would not be attending dinner.

         [¶4] As a Sheriff's Deputy, John always wore his personal weapon when he went out, even when he was off duty. Since he had been planning to go out, he had his gun on him during this argument. After they argued some more, Christine reached for John's gun but he bear hugged her so that she could not reach it. He told her, "don't touch my gun." Id. She responded, "I'll just get one out of the safe." Id. at 489.[3] After Christine again threatened to kill herself, John said "fine, " took his gun out, and laid it on the bed. Id. at 497. He walked out of the bedroom and toward the front door. Before he exited the house, he heard a gunshot. He ran back to the bedroom and saw that Christine had shot herself. John attempted to administer first aid, and he called the police. Christine died as a result of the gunshot.

         [¶5] A forensic investigation confirmed that Christine had pulled the trigger, not John. Although there was blood on his sweater, there was no impact splatter, indicating that he was not in the room at the time of the gunshot. Christine did have impact splatter on her, except for the palm of her hand, indicating that she was holding the gun. Expert witnesses later testified, with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, that the gunshot was self-inflicted.[4]

         [¶6] The Sheriff brought disciplinary action against John and recommended his termination. It charged that John did not conform to laws, engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer, and improperly used his weapons.

         [¶7] The Estate filed a civil complaint against the Sheriff and John for Christine's death, but John was later dismissed from the case. The Estate had four legal theories in its amended complaint: 1) Christine's death was caused by John's negligence and the Sheriff was vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior; 2) Christine's death was caused by the excessive force used by John to restrain her, and the Sheriff was liable under respondeat superior; 3) Christine's death was caused by the Sheriff's negligent entrustment of John with guns and ammunition; and 4) Christine's death was caused by the Sheriff's negligent retention of John as an employee.

         [¶8] A jury trial was held on February 1-5, 2016. Following the presentation of evidence, the Sheriff filed a motion for judgment on the evidence, arguing that the Estate did not meet its burden of proof on any of its claims. The trial court granted the motion as to the final three counts, but allowed the trial to proceed on the Estate's first theory. The jury found in favor of the Estate and awarded it $1.2 million. The Sheriff filed a motion to correct error, ...


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