COA: Carmel not liable for alleged negligence by parks department employees

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A mother who sued the city of Carmel after her child was allegedly bullied and “pseudo sexually assaulted” during a camp put on by the local parks department has not convinced the Court of Appeals of Indiana that the city should be held liable.

Minor S.E. attended a summer camp organized and administered by the Carmel/Clay Department of Parks and Recreation in 2017. But the child stopped attending after allegedly experiencing “various forms of bullying and/or pseudo sexual assault” by at least one other child.

Soon after, S.E.’s mother, Katherine Danley Glaser, filed a complaint seeking damages from the city for its and its employees’ alleged negligence in the care, control and supervision of her child.

The city moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not owe a duty to a parks department guest, but the Hamilton Superior Court denied that motion.

Discovery before and after the summary judgment motion established that the city is governed by its city council while the parks department is governed by a separate board, established in an interlocal agreement between the city and Clay Township of Hamilton County. Carmel’s mayor and Clay Township each appoint four members to the board, and the Carmel/Clay School Board appoints one.

While the case moved forward, a related legal dispute played out involving Glaser’s efforts to receive emails sent by the Carmel mayor. The result, in a July COA opinion, was appellate fees being awarded twice to the city.

After additional discovery, which established none of the individuals running the camp were city employees, the city moved for summary judgment on the basis that it was immune from suit under the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

The trial court granted the motion, finding there was no issue of material fact that Carmel is a separate political subdivision from the parks department; that no alleged negligent acts were committed by officers, agents or employees of the city; and that the alleged acts were committed at a school that is not owned or operated by the city. Thus, the trial court concluded the city could not be held liable under the ITCA for the negligent acts or omissions of another political subdivision.

Before the Court of Appeals, judges affirmed for the city.

Writing for the court, Chief Judge Cale Bradford pointed to Joint County Park Board of Ripley, Dearborn and Decatur Counties v. Stegemoller, et al., 228 Ind. 103 (1949), which helped establish that parks departments are not municipal corporations under Indiana law and the ITCA. Additionally, judges relied on Taylor v. State, 663 N.E.2d 213 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996).

“Based on our conclusion that the City and the Parks Department are separate entities for purposes of the ITCA, we further conclude that the trial court properly determined that the City ‘cannot be held liable under the [ITCA] for the negligent acts or omissions of other political subdivisions,’” Bradford wrote.

Judges also shot down another argument by Glaser, who cited Schon v. Frantz, 156 N.E.3d 692, (Ind. Ct. App. 2020), that the city is effectively the “alter ego” of the parks department even though the two are separate entities.

Again, the judges weren’t convinced, finding numerous distinguishable differences between the two cases.

“In conclusion, we agree with the trial court that the record shows no genuine issues of material fact that the City and the Parks Department are separate political subdivisions under the interlocal agreement’s terms, state statutes, and our case law,” Bradford wrote. “As a result, the City cannot be held liable for the negligent acts or omissions of the Parks Department or its employees pursuant to Indiana Code section 34-13-3-3(a)(10).”

The case is S.E., Minor Child, By Next Friend, Katherine Danley Glaser, and Katherine Danley Glaser v. City of Carmel, Indiana, 22A-CT-520.

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