Justices uphold summary judgment for state trooper in motorcycle crash suit

An off-duty Indiana State Police trooper was not “clearly outside” the scope of his employment during an incident that injured a motorcyclist when the trooper was riding in his unmarked ISP vehicle, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices agreed to hear the case of Bryce A. Burton v. Martin Benner and Indiana State Police, 19S-CT-549, in October following a reversal from the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The lower appellate court reversed the Benton Circuit Court’s summary judgment ruling for Indiana State Police Trooper Martin Benner after the trial court agreed with Benner that the trooper was driving in the scope of his employment.

Benner had attempted to pass oncoming motorcyclist Bryce Burton on the road. At the time of the accident, Benner was off duty but driving his state-issued police commission as allowed under state police policy.

In attempting to avoid a head-on collision with Benner, Burton sustained injuries after his bike left the roadway.

The COA disagreed with the trial court’s decision, finding reasonable minds could disagree on whether the trooper was outside the scope of his employment and that summary judgment was thus inappropriate.

But Indiana Supreme Court justices affirmed the trial court Tuesday, concluding that although there was some evidence that Benner was not in strict compliance with state police policy at the time of the accident, it was not enough to place him “clearly outside” the scope of his employment through the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

“The undisputed evidence in this case indicates Trooper Benner complied with the vast majority of State Police procedures for operating his police commission while off duty,” Justice Steven David wrote for the Supreme Court, which further disagreed with Burton’s assertion that Benner’s violation of traffic laws exposed him to personal liability under the ITCA.

“True, State Police policy expressly prohibits violation of traffic laws, but in our view, the violation in this case did not move Benner ‘clearly outside’ the scope of his employment. Recall that the scope of employment ‘may include acts that the employer expressly forbids’ or ‘that violate the employer’s rules, orders, or instruction,’” David wrote, quoting Cox v. Evansville, 107 N.E.3d 460 (Ind. 2018).  “While State Police policy forbids speeding in non-emergency situations, speeding could ‘naturally or predictably arise’ from driving a commission even while off duty. The ‘clearly outside’ standard set forth in Indiana Code section 34-13-3-5(c)(2) represents a high bar and, in this case, we are not convinced that bar has been cleared.”

Noting there is “no precise formula to determine whether an act is ‘clearly outside’ the scope of employment,” the justices therefore found no genuine issue of material fact as to the disputed issue and affirmed the trial court’s decision in the trooper’s favor.

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