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Deputy owed no duty to warn of icy road

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A county sheriff’s department that doesn’t own, maintain or control a county road does not owe a common law duty to warn the public of known hazardous conditions upon the roadway, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Pamela Price filed a negligence action against the Putnam County Sheriff's Department, Putnam County Highway Department, County Board of Commissioners, and the Reelsville Water Authority following an auto accident involving personal injury and property damage. Price lost control of her car after hitting ice on the same part of the road where earlier in the morning, another motorist lost control. A waterline leak caused water to run on the roadway and freeze. A sheriff’s deputy responded to the first accident, contacted the highway department regarding the road condition and left the area.

The trial court denied the sheriff’s department’s motion to dismiss under Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6), which the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed on interlocutory appeal. The justices reversed, focusing on the issue of whether the sheriff owed a duty to warn motorists of the road conditions.

In Putnam County Sheriff v. Pamela Price, No. 60S01-1012-CV-665, the high court concluded that the sheriff’s department didn’t owe a duty to alleviate or warn motorists of an icy or hazardous condition on a county roadway. Citing Benton v. City of Oakland City, 721 N.E.2d 224, 230 (Ind. 1999), on which Price relies to support her negligence claim, the justices noted implicit in that case was that the governmental entity maintained and controlled the property giving rise to the injury. Price doesn’t allege that the sheriff owned, operated or controlled any portion of the county road, and absent this ownership or control, the sheriff had no duty to warn of a hazardous condition, wrote Justice Robert Rucker.

Justice Steven David wrote a concurring opinion, in which Justice Brent Dickson joined, because he was concerned the majority’s decision could be interpreted too broadly. He wrote of a scenario where a sheriff may discover a bridge had been washed away and failed to do anything. In that scenario, a sheriff may have a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care by warning the highway department and remaining on the scene until assistance arrives.

“… I concur in the outcome of this particular case but am hesitant for the subsequent application of this holding that the sheriff can escape any liability on the basis of non-maintenance and control of the county roadway,” he wrote.  

The high court ordered the trial court to grant the sheriff’s department’s motion.

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