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Hall v. Mississippi Department of Public Safety

April 09, 1998

JAMES HALL
v.
MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY



EN Banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Justice, For The Court:

THIS OPINION IS NOT DESIGNATED FOR PUBLICATION AND MAY NOT BE CITED, PURSUANT TO M.R.A.P. 35-A

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/03/96

TRIAL JUDGE: HON. KOSTA N. VLAHOS

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HARRISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - PERSONAL INJURY

On September 9, 1993, Plaintiff James Hall was stopped by Mississippi Highway Patrolman, Officer Mike Cox, on suspicions that Hall was driving under the influence of alcohol. After stopping Hall on the shoulder of Interstate 10 in Hancock County, Officer Cox parked his patrol vehicle approximately seven (7) to fifteen (15) feet behind Hall's vehicle. Cox's patrol vehicle was a canine unit and he left the car motor running to keep the dog at a certain temperature.

Cox and Hall stood at the rear of Hall's vehicle between the two cars for approximately fifteen minutes while Officer Cox administered an intoxilyzer exam to Hall, arrested and handcuffed him, and asked him to sit on the rear of his (Hall's) car. Cox advised Hall to remain calm and not try to run because, if need be, he would let the dog out of the patrol vehicle. Cox testified that the canine could be released from the car through a remote control device located on his gun belt. Cox then walked to the front of Hall's car to question the passenger.

While Officer Cox was questioning the passenger of Hall's vehicle, Cox's patrol car rolled towards Hall's car. Hall put his right leg up in an effort to stop the car but was unable to do so and his left leg was pinned between the two cars. Hall stated that he did not move from between the two vehicles because he was afraid the officer would release the dog from the patrol vehicle. Officer Cox heard Hall yell and proceeded to the back of Hall's car, pushed the car back with his hand and then got in the car to back it up. Officer Cox stated that the patrol car's gear shift indicator was in the "park" position when he re-entered the vehicle. Hall was treated at Hancock Medical Center for a fracture of the left fibula and released the following day.

The patrol vehicle had been maintained by Ronnie's Automotive. The service records were introduced and revealed no extraordinary events with respect to that vehicle during the service and maintenance history. Officer Cox also testified that there were no other instances where the vehicle had rolled forward with the gear shift positioned in "park." After the accident, Ronnie inspected the linkage on the vehicle but found no leaks or other aberrations relative to the transmission. According to testimony of Fred King, a Ford Motor Company employee who had examined the patrol vehicle after the accident, there was no design or mechanical defect which would account for the vehicle's having rolled forward while still in "park."

Hall filed this action on August 17, 1994, seeking relief from the Mississippi Department of Public Safety (MDPS) for his injuries.(1) On August 22, 1994, Hall filed an Amended Complaint seeking recovery on the theories of strict liability, negligence, and res ipsa loquitur. MDPS filed an Answer generally denying liability and later filed an Amended Answer raising the sovereign immunity provisions contained in Miss. Code Ann. 11-46-1 et seq. as a defense to liability. In December of 1994, Hanover Insurance Company was added by amendment to the Amended Complaint as a party defendant. However, the claim against Hanover was bifurcated upon Order of the trial court on June 10, 1996. Ford Motor Company was subsequently joined as a party defendant in June of 1995, but was ultimately dismissed by consent Order.

A bench trial on the merits was conducted on June 24, 1996. At the close of Plaintiff's case in chief, counsel for MDPS moved for dismissal, which was denied by the court. MDPS then presented its case in rebuttal. On June 27, 1996, MDPS moved for a directed verdict and/or dismissal. On July 3, 1996, Circuit Court Judge Kosta Vlahos entered an Order finding MDPS immune from liability for Hall's injuries.

Hall, aggrieved by the trial court's decision, appealed to this Court and raised the following issues:

I. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FINDING THAT THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY WAS IMMUNE FROM LIABILITY PURSUANT TO MISS. CODE ANN. § 11-46-9(1)(c)(2).

II. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN NOT RULING IN HALL'S FAVOR ON THE QUESTION OF MDPS'S NEGLIGENCE.

III. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FAILING TO RENDER JUDGMENT IN PLAINTIFF'S FAVOR BASED ON A RES IPSA LOQUITUR THEORY.

IV. WHETHER MDPS WAIVED ITS IMMUNITY BY OBTAINING LIABILITY INSURANCE.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court will not overturn the trial court's decision unless the decision was manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous. "When a trial Judge sits without a jury, this Court will not disturb his factual determinations where there is substantial evidence in the record to support those findings." Yarbrough v. Camphor, 645 So. 2d 867, 869 (Miss. 1994) (citing Omnibank of Mantee v. United S. Bank, 607 So. 2d 76, 82 (Miss. 1992)). "'Put another way, this Court ought and generally will affirm a trial court sitting without a jury on a question of fact unless, based upon substantial evidence, the court must be manifestly wrong.'" Id. (quoting Tricon Metal v. Topp, 516 So. 2d 236, 238 (Miss. 1987); Brown v. Williams, 504 So. 2d 1188, 1192 (Miss. 1987)).

However, "[i]nterpretation of statutes is a matter of law rather than an issue for the jury... " Hernandez v. Vickery Chevrolet-Oldsmobile, Inc., 652 So. 2d 179, 182 (Miss. 1995). Furthermore, "[t]his Court must review questions of law de novo." Gibson v. Bd. of Supervisors of Calhoun County, 656 So. 2d 312, 314 (Miss. 1995) (citing Harrison v. City of Gulfport, 557 So. 2d 780, 784 (Miss. 1990); Cole v. Nat'l Life Ins., 549 So. 2d 1301, 1303 (Miss. 1989); Busching v. Griffin, 542 So. 2d 860, 863 (Miss. 1989); Boggs v. Eaton, 379 So. 2d 520, 522 (Miss. 1980)).

LEGAL ANALYSIS

I. WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FINDING THAT THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY WAS IMMUNE FROM LIABILITY PURSUANT TO MISS. CODE ANN. § 11-46-9(1)(c).

Mississippi statute provides governmental entities immunity from liability under certain circumstances. This statute states in pertinent part:

(1) A governmental entity and its employees acting within the course and scope of their employment or duties shall not be liable for any claim:

....

(c) Arising out of any act or omission of an employee of a governmental entity engaged in the performance or execution of duties or activities relating to police or fire protection unless the employee acted in reckless disregard of the safety and well-being of any person not engaged in criminal activity at the time of injury;. ..

Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-9(1)(c) (Supp 1997).

On appeal, Hall argues that the trial court erred in finding the MDPS immune from liability in accordance with Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-9(1)(c) because the officer's collective actions constituted reckless disregard for Hall's safety and because the officer's actions were not "police" activities as contemplated by § 11-46-9(1)(c). Hall averred in his Complaint that he was injured as a result of the officer's actions, specifically that the officer was negligent in the following manner: (1) allowing the vehicle to remain running while interviewing Hall; (2) failing to position the vehicle where it would not harm Hall if the gear engaged; and (3) failing to properly secure his vehicle. However, Hall ...


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