On July 28, 2010, the Indiana Court of Appeals handed down the opinion of Putnam County Sheriff v. Pamela Rice. It continues what I see as a trend of judicial decisions eroding the immunities available to Indiana’s law enforcement officers under the Indiana Tort Claims Act. As I suggested in an earlier post, the more this continues, the more inaction by law enforcement is the safer liability option. In other words, if police officers sit on their hands, they are much less likely to be sued successfully.
The most recent installment involves a cold November morning at 5:30 a.m. where a Sheriff’s Deputy responded to an accident involving an icy roadway. Turns out the local water authority had a pipe leaking across the road. He called in the situation, and the local water authority that owned the pipe, among others, were notified. But, he didn’t hang around the site until the problem was fixed or stick around to wave off other motorists. Then, at 7:15 a.m., another motorist had an accident at the icy spot. The Indiana Court of Appeals held that the Sheriff could be liable for the second person’s injuries because, it concluded, “the Sheriff has a duty to warn the public of a known hazardous condition.” The court further opined that this duty was not closely enough related to things like preventing crime and providing emergency services to afford the Sheriff the immunity available for those activities.
I think the legislature needs to step in and clarify its intent with respect to the immunities available to law enforcement officials. The nature of the job is that police officers have to get involved in situations where bad things are happening – meaning, a disproportionate number of people injured in one fashion or another. The less they are protected from claims of negligence – resulting from the fact that the government has deep pockets more than from any notable wrongdoing – the more the incentive is going to run toward inactivity.