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Sheriff’s department not liable in death of former deputy’s wife

January 31, 2017

The Harrison County Sheriff’s Department cannot be held liable for the death of the wife of one of its former deputies who used her husband’s gun to kill herself. The Indiana Court of Appeals held Tuesday the deputy was acting as a husband, not a law enforcement official, during the incident.

During an argument in their southern Indiana home, Christine Britton told her husband, John, that he made her so mad she could kill herself. John Britton, then a sheriff’s deputy with the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department, brushed off his wife’s comments, but after they continued arguing, Christine Britton reached for her husband’s gun, which he always wore, even when he was off duty.

Deputy Britton put his wife in a bear hug to keep her from grabbing the gun and told her not to touch his weapon. Britton then told her husband she would just get a gun out of their safe and threatened to kill herself again. Deputy Britton responded with “Fine,” laid his gun on the bed, then walked out of the room and toward the front door.

Before the sheriff’s deputy was able to exit the house, he heard a gunshot and discovered that Britton had shot herself. He called police and attempted to administer first aid, but his wife died as a result of the gunshot.

Although evidence concluded that the gunshot was self-inflicted, the Sheriff’s Department recommended that Deputy Britton be terminated, and Christine Britton’s estate sued her widowed husband and his former employer. Former Deputy Britton was dismissed from the case, but the case against the sheriff’s department continued, with Britton’s estate arguing that the sheriff was negligent and liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

During trial, the sheriff moved for judgment on the evidence, arguing that the estate did not meet its burden of proof on any of its claims. The Floyd Circuit Court granted the motion on three counts, but allowed one of the respondeat superior theories to proceed. The jury found in favor of Britton’s estate and awarded it $1.2 million. The sheriff moved to correct error, but the trial court declined.

On appeal, the sheriff argued that as a matter of law, it cannot be held liable for former Deputy Britton’s actions because, among other reasons, he was not acting within the scope of employment during the incident that resulted in his wife’s death.

Judge John Baker, writing for a unanimous panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals Tuesday, agreed and rejected the estate’s respondeat superior theory, holding that, “In all of his relevant acts, John was acting as a husband, not a sheriff’s deputy.”

Further, Baker wrote that John did not commit a single act or omission that he would not have committed if he worked in an entirely different profession. Thus, none of his actions were “authorized” by his employer, as is required by the doctrine of respondeat superior, so the question of the scope of his employment should have never gone to a jury.

The case of Harrison County Sheriff’s Department v. Leandra Ayers, Personal Representative of the Estate of Christine Britton, Deceased, 22A01-1605-CT-1080, was remanded with instructions to grant the sheriff’s motion to correct error.

 

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