Ala. SC rules on motorcycle wreck lawsuit

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 26, 2011, 10:54am


MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Legal Newsline) - The Alabama Supreme Court has denied a police officer's motion for summary judgment in a personal injury lawsuit filed by a woman who allegedly was struck by the officer on a motorcycle during a city event.

The City of Homewood and Jerry Wayne Suttles, the police officer, appealed to the Court from the denial of their motion for a summary judgment.

The Court, in its ruling Friday, affirmed and reversed in part and remanded the case to the Jefferson Circuit Court.

In May 2006, Eldetraud "Trudy" Roy was walking along Central Avenue in Homewood. When she approached the corner of 29th Court Street and Central Avenue, several city police officers on motorcycles were stopped at the intersection, directing traffic.

A fundraising event known as the "Torch Run" was underway and participants were about to go through the intersection.

Roy alleges she was given permission by one of the police officers to cross the intersection. As she did, she was struck by a motorcycle driven by Suttles. Roy contends at the time of the collision Suttles "was driving at a high rate of speed while conducting 'leap frog' maneuvers" purportedly to control traffic during the event. She suffered numerous injuries.

On April 14, 2007, Roy filed a complaint seeking damages from Homewood, Suttles and fictitiously named defendants, claiming they caused her injuries. She also alleged that Homewood was vicariously liable for Suttles' actions and for the actions of certain fictitiously named defendants.

Suttles was named in both his official capacity as a Homewood police officer and in his individual capacity.

Suttles and Homewood separately answered Roy's complaint. In September 2007, Suttles and Homewood filed a joint motion seeking a partial summary judgment on the issue of damages. Specifically, they alleged at the time of the accident Suttles was acting in the line and scope of his employment as a police officer of Homewood.

Under state code, they contend the maximum amount of damages Roy could recover in her action against them is $100,000. Thus, Homewood and Suttles sought a partial summary judgment.

Suttles also moved for a summary judgment, claiming he was entitled to State-agent immunity as to the claims alleged against him in his individual capacity.

Roy opposed Homewood and Suttles' motion for a partial summary judgment on the damages issue. She argued that although the damages for claims against Homewood and against Suttles in his official capacity may be capped at $100,000, the cap does not apply to the claim against Suttles in his individual capacity.

In an order dated June 12, 2008, the trial court granted in part and denied in part the joint motion.

The court certified its June 12 order as appropriate for an interlocutory appeal, saying the action presented three controlling questions of law "as to which there are substantial grounds for difference of opinion."

Homewood and Suttles also petitioned the Court for an interlocutory appeal.

Justice James Gregory Shaw, who authored the Court's 24-page opinion, disagreed that Suttles should be afforded immunity from a suit naming him in his individual capacity.

"Sheriffs and municipal peace officers are protected from suits seeking damages from them in their individual capacity by two different forms of immunity: Sheriffs are protected by State immunity under § 14, and municipal peace officers are protected by State-agent immunity," Shaw wrote.

"These two types of immunity, and accordingly sheriffs and municipal peace officers, are treated differently under Alabama law."

The Court explained that a suit against a sheriff is "essentially a suit against the State" and thus not maintainable under the state constitution.

While Suttles may be entitled to State-agent immunity, the city and Suttles did not demonstrate he is entitled to State immunity, the Court said. "Homewood and Suttles have thus not established that the trial court erred in denying their motion for a summary judgment on this ground."

The Court said Homewood and Suttles also failed to demonstrate that the trial court erred in denying their motion on the damages for claims.

The two argued that "the inescapable conclusion is that it makes no sense at all" for damages sought against Suttles in his official capacity to be capped, while damages sought against him in his individual capacity are not.

However, no authority is cited or argument advanced demonstrating that the Court or the trial court can consider the individual claim against Suttles as an official-capacity claim subject, the Court explained.

The Court also reversed the trial court's judgment holding that the jury is to decide whether Suttles is entitled to State-agent immunity.

In its order denying Homewood and Suttles' motion for a summary judgment, the trial court stated, "The Court further finds that there are genuine issues of fact and that it is for a jury to decide whether Officer Suttles is liable for claims against him in his individual and personal capacity."

Suttles and Homewood requested that the Court determine whether Suttles was entitled to State-agent immunity. However, the Court said it is "unclear" whether the trial court has yet undertaken such an examination.

"Specifically, the third question states in part: 'If (the existence of State-agent immunity) is (a) question of law for the court, then based on the record evidence, is Suttles immune from (Roy's) claims?'

"This issue must first be addressed by the trial court, subject, under appropriate circumstances, to review by this Court," it wrote.

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