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COA considers liability in sheriff’s office suicide case

January 10, 2017

After the wife of a Harrison County sheriff’s deputy killed herself with her husband’s gun while he was off duty, the sheriff’s office and her estate began debating a single question: was the deputy acting in the line of duty when his wife committed suicide?

The trial court answered that question with a “Yes,” awarding the estate of Christine Britton a $1.2 million verdict against the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department under the theory of resondeat superior. But in oral arguments Tuesday before the Indiana Court of Appeals, counsel for the deputy and the sheriff’s department fought back, arguing that Deputy John Britton was only acting as a husband when his wife took the gun, so his role in law enforcement should not apply.

Elizabeth Knight, counsel for the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department, told the appellate panel of judges Edward Najam, John Baker and Rudolph Pyle III that there was no question that Officer Britton had committed a criminal act – that is, he threw his weapon down on the bed after his wife had threatened suicide, an act that constitutes aiding and abetting a suicide.

But the case should never have been sent to a jury because it hinged on a question of law, not a question of fact, Knight told the panel.

Based upon Indiana Supreme Court precedence in Barnett v. Clark, 889 N.E.2d 281 (Ind. 2008) and Stropes v. Heritage House Childrens Center, 547 N.E.2d 244 (Ind. 1989), such a case cannot go to a jury  to decide whether Officer Britton’s actions were in the scope of his employment unless it has been established that prior to committing the criminal act, he was committing authorized acts, Knight said. And because there is no evidence in the record that Officer Britton was acting within the scope of his employment at the time he threw the gun on the bed, that legal threshold was not met, she said.

But Baker noted that if a person threatens suicide in the presence of an officer, even an off-duty officer, that officer is then “instantly on” and back in his role as a protector of the peace. That argument presents a question of fact, he said, not a question of law.

Knight disagreed and instead said the Indiana Supreme Court had also established a second requirement stating that if an officer is acting independently and divorced from his job, then liability cannot attach.

“There is absolutely nothing in the transitional facts that leads this to anything but a personal dispute,” Knight said.

But tracking closely to Baker’s line of question, Matthew Schad, counsel for Christine Britton’s estate, told the appellate panel the case did hinge on a question of fact because Officer Britton was wearing his “police hat” at the time of his wife’s death.

Up until Christine Britton threatened suicide, the sheriff’s deputy had been wearing his “husband hat,” Schad said, forming his argument around earlier testimony from the Harrison County sheriff. But when she first threatened suicide, the husband hat began to slide off while the law enforcement hat began to come on, he said, a transition that Officer Britton was aware of.

Then, when Christine Britton reached for her husband’s gun and, alternatively, threatened to kill herself with her own gun, Officer Britton was acting with his police hat entirely on when he restrained her.

But Pyle noted that the fact that the Brittons were in their own home at the time of the incident was a “huge fact” in the question of whether Officer Britton was acting within the scope of his employment. Schad conceded that the personal relationship between the two was a factor in the case, but not the deciding factor.

“In order for that to be the deciding factor, in essence it would require a rule that says if an off-duty officer is interacting with someone they know well personally … that somehow means they cannot also be acting in the scope or course of their employment,” Schad said, noting that he did not agree with the creation of such a rule.

But Knight said Officer Britton’s own testimony that he would’ve handcuffed his wife to the bed after she threatened suicide if she had been someone else proves that he was acting as a husband, not a sheriff’s deputy. And under a question of law, that admission from Britton fails to meet the threshold of proving that he was committing authorized acts prior to his criminal act, she said.

The case is Harrison County Sheriff’s Department v. Leandra Ayers, 22A01-1605-CT-01080. Tuesday's oral arguments may be viewed here.

 

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