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Allowing drunk driver to continue driving and cause wreck is reckless disregard under MTCA

Facts

Trista Turner was injured in a collision with a drunk driver. Turner filed a complaint in Sunflower County Circuit Court against the drunk driver and the City of Ruleville. Turner alleged that the driver, James E. Smith, was operating the vehicle without a valid driver’s license and while visibly intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of .22. Turner also alleged that immediately prior to the accident Smith had been stopped by an Officer Bradshaw, an officer employed by the City of Ruleville Police Department, for operating the vehicle in an erratic fashion and failing to have the vehicle’s headlights on. Turner specifically alleged that, although he knew that Smith was intoxicated and incapable of driving his vehicle in a safe and prudent manner, Officer Bradshaw allowed Smith to continue driving. This, Turner charged, constituted reckless disregard of the safety and well being of Turner and others traveling on the highway who were not engaged in criminal activity at the time of injury.

The circuit judge found no allegation in the complaint that the officer acted with malice or deliberately and intentionally harmed the plaintiff. MSC reversed.

Analysis

Turner contends that the circuit court misinterpreted and misapplied the term reckless disregard. She argues that common definitions of the term make clear that a showing of intent is not required to establish recklessness.

Reckless disregard of rights of others is defined as used in automobile guest law, means the voluntary doing by motorist of an improper or wrongful act, or with knowledge of existing conditions, the voluntary refraining from doing a proper or prudent act when such act or failure to act evinces an entire abandonment of any care, and heedless indifference to results which may follow and the reckless taking of chance of accident happening without intent that any occur. Black’s Law Dictionary 1270 (6th ed. 1991)

Disregard of the safety of others is at least negligence if not gross negligence. Because “reckless” precedes “disregard,” the standard is elevated. As quoted above from Black’s Law Dictionary, “reckless, ” according to the circumstances, “may mean desperately heedless, wanton or willful, or it may mean only careless, inattentive or negligence.” In the context of the statute, reckless must connote “wanton or willful,” because immunity lies for negligence. And this Court has held that “wanton” and “reckless disregard” are just a step below specific intent.

Our case law indicates “reckless disregard” embraces willful or wanton conduct which requires knowingly and intentionally doing a thing or wrongful act. Based on the facts pled, there is no allegation that the officer intentionally meant to harm Turner. However, the facts pled do allege that he wrongfully and intentionally allowed a visibly intoxicated Smith to continue driving. By this alleged act, the officer allegedly showed a reckless or wanton or willful disregard for the safety of other drivers on the road, including Turner.

The trial court erred in holding that the complaint was insufficient because it did not allege that the officer intended to harm the plaintiff. The proper focus should have been and is whether the officer intended to do the act that caused harm to come to the plaintiff.

The City is correct in its argument that reckless disregard for the safety of others is synonymous with willfulness and wantonness. We find that Turner adequately pled that the officer in this case acted willfully and wantonly when he intentionally allowed a visibly intoxicated Smith to continue driving.

Conclusion

Because willful and wanton are synonymous with reckless disregard and because the officer here was alleged to have acted willfully and wantonly, Turner’s complaint did state a claim upon which relief could be granted. She adequately pled reckless disregard within the meaning of Section 11-46-9(c). Therefore, the trial court erred in dismissing Turner’s complaint and action against the City. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the Sunflower County Circuit Court, and we remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/Conv6920.pdf