Speedway immune from lawsuit filed after police dog bit delivery driver

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The town of Speedway is immune from a lawsuit filed by a delivery driver who was bitten by a town K-9 officer, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed.

According to court records, on March 1, 2019, officer Matthew Turpin of the Speedway Police Department was dispatched to investigate a potential burglary. Turpin is a trained K-9 handler, and his K-9 unit, Tom, was with him that night.

Turpin spotted a “suspicious vehicle,” which fled from him, so he pursued with lights and sirens activated. During the chase, a dispatcher advised Turpin that the vehicle had been reported as stolen.

Meanwhile, food delivery driver Jerry Bewley arrived at a customer’s house in Speedway around 7:30 p.m. As Bewley and the customer conducted their transaction on the customer’s front porch, they heard police sirens and saw red and blue lights flashing in the distance. Bewley also saw a vehicle being chased by an SPD vehicle.

The fleeing vehicle crashed into a parked car down the street and two people “jumped out.” Bewley watched as one of the men who had jumped out of the fleeing vehicle ran between the customer’s house and a neighbor’s house.

Turpin, who was driving the SPD vehicle, also saw a suspect run between two houses and out of sight. He stopped in front of the customer’s house and got out.

Bewley did not hear Turpin say anything, but he thought the officer should have seen him when he exited his police car.

Turpin then released the K-9, which ran directly to Bewley. Bewley tried to get away by climbing on the hood of his customer’s vehicle, but the dog bit him and held on until Turpin forced it to let go.

Bewley was taken to a hospital for treatment.

Meanwhile, another officer pursued the suspects and captured one of them. That suspect was charged with two Level 6 felonies and three misdemeanors.

In January 2020, Jerry and Deborah Bewley sued Speedway, the SPD and Turpin. The Bewleys raised several claims, including the allegation that Turpin negligently handled the K-9 and that the town was responsible for the officer’s actions.

The SPD and Turpin were dismissed from the case.

In September 2022, the town moved for summary judgment, arguing it was immune from liability under the Indiana Tort Claims Act. The Marion Superior Court agreed granted the town’s motion.

The Bewleys appealed but the Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the town is entitled to immunity under the act.

Senior Judge Margret Robb wrote the opinion for the appellate court.

Robb pointed to Indiana Code § 34-13-3- 3(a)(8) (2016), which states in part: “A governmental entity or an employee acting within the scope of the employee’s employment is not liable if a loss results from … [t]he adoption and enforcement of or failure to adopt or enforce … a law (including rules and regulations) … unless the act of enforcement constitutes false arrest or false imprisonment.”

According to Robb, the “enforcement” provision of that statute has been interpreted to mean “compelling or attempting to compel the obedience of another to laws, rules, or regulations, and the sanctioning or attempt to sanction a violation thereof,” citing St. Joseph Cnty. Police Dep’t v. Shumaker, 812 N.E.2d 1143, 1150 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), trans. denied.

“In this case, Officer Turpin was chasing suspected felons when he released the K9, resulting in the K9 biting Jerry,” Robb wrote. “The officer’s conduct, although presumed negligent according to precedent, falls within the immunity granted under Section 3(a)(8) for enforcing the law.”

The Bewleys also claimed I.C. 34-13-3-3(a)(8) conflicts with I.C. 15-20-1-4 (2014), which governs dog bites and attacks.

But the COA agreed with the town that I.C. 15-20-1-4 is inapplicable due to an exception in I.C. 15-20-1-6 (2008) for dogs owned by a governmental entity “engaged in assisting the owner or the owner’s agent in the performance of law enforcement or military duties.”

“Absent any statutory conflict between Indiana Code section 15-20-1-4 and Indiana Code section 34-13-3-3(a)(8), the ITCA immunizes Officer Turpin’s conduct because he was enforcing a law when he released the K9,” Robb concluded.

Judges Leanna Weissmann and Dana Kenworthy concurred.

The case is Jerry Bewley and Deborah Bewley v. Town of Speedway, 23A-CT-451.

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