William and Lynda Irwin were driving westbound on Highway 6 through Panola County. In Panola County, Highway 6 is a four-lane divided highway that runs concurrent with U.S. Route 278. Mrs. Irwin was driving an SUV, going 75 miles per hour in a 65 miles-per-hour zone. Highway 6 was four lanes, separated in the middle by a median patch.
Unbeknownst to them, Deputy Terry Smith was driving northbound on Lawrence Brothers Road, which intersects with Highway 6. The deputy approached the stop sign at the intersection and continued driving north. Next, the deputy approached the second intersection. At the same time, the Irwins were fast approaching the intersection. There was no stop sign at the second intersection, but there was a “stop bar” that required Deputy Smith to yield to oncoming traffic.
As Deputy Smith crossed the intersection and drove into the westbound lane of Highway 6, the Irwins’ SUV smashed into the deputy’s truck. The couple lost their lives as a result of the accident. Data retrieved from the black box in his truck would later reveal Deputy Smith did not stop at the stop sign at the intersection of Lawrence Brothers Road and the eastbound lane of Highway 6, nor did he stop before entering the westbound lane. It further revealed the deputy was initially driving 25 miles per hour, and his speed increased to 30 miles per hour as he crossed into the westbound lane.
Despite this scientific data, Deputy Smith would later repeatedly testify under oath that he recalled “stopping” and “double checking” to make sure traffic was clear. The Irwin estates filed suit against Panola County, Panola County Sheriff’s Department, and Deputy Terry Smith, stating Deputy Smith acted with reckless disregard for the safety of the Irwins.
The trial court first heard from the law enforcement officer who arrived at the scene of the accident. Trooper Justin Ales described the weather conditions on the day of the accident as “clear.” He then stated he did not see anything that would obstruct a driver’s view of oncoming traffic. He also testified the area was mostly “flat” and “level.” When asked how far a driver could see from the intersection, he replied, “a quarter of a mile.”
The trooper then described the intersection of Lawrence Brothers Road and Highway 6—where the accident occurred. He testified there was a yield line on both sides of the cross over that indicates a stopping point for oncoming traffic. When asked about the circumstances contributing to the accident, he stated Deputy Smith “failed to yield right of way.” The trooper testified that because of the deputy’s familiarity with the area, he would have seen oncoming cars if he had stopped his truck and looked.
However, Trooper Ales also stated he did not know much of the information ascertained from the black box. Specifically, he stated he did not know that Deputy Smith did not stop at the stop sign or that he accelerated from 25 miles per hour to 30 miles per hour while driving through the intersection. And on cross-examination, counsel for the County asked if the accident seemed typical. The deputy responded, “true.”
Next, Deputy Smith testified. He stated he did not have on his lights or his sirens, as he was returning to the station after unsuccessfully attempting to apprehend a suspect. He also testified he was familiar with the intersection of Lawrence Brothers Road and Highway 6, as he had driven through it “thousands” of times. The deputy was adamant he “stopped” and made sure traffic was “clear” before driving through the intersection but “did not see anything” coming. When asked if anything obstructed his vision to see oncoming traffic, he responded, “Nothing obstructed it that day as I recall.” He continued, “I clearly remember what occurred that day. I stopped. I recall stopping. I recall double-checking, making sure there’s no traffic. Accelerated not at a high rate of speed. Accelerated to get through the intersection and proceed [north].”
The deputy repeatedly testified he stopped at the intersection. He further stated he was not on his phone or his radio. The deputy said he was “clearly focused on driving” and did not speed through the intersection.
John Corbitt testified as an expert in accident reconstruction for the Irwin Estates. The expert inspected both cars and downloaded data from each black box. He testified the data showed Deputy Smith did not stop at the stop sign at the Lawrence Brothers Road and Highway 6 intersection, nor did he stop at the second intersection where the Irwins’ SUV collided with his truck. Specifically, Corbitt testified the Deputy never applied the brakes and “steadily increased his speed from 25 miles per hour to 30 miles per hour through the intersection.
The expert also testified the Irwins’ SUV was traveling 75 miles per hour at the time of the crash. When asked if Deputy Smith would have seen the Irwins’ SUV had he stopped and looked, the expert stated, “[Y]es, sir, plainly visible.” He stated Deputy Smith did not exercise reasonable care in crossing Highway 6. In his ultimate opinion, the proximate cause of the accident was “Deputy Smith failing to stop and yield the right of way.”
The expert retained by Panola County, Brady McMillen, had a different view of the facts. He also went to the scene of the accident and downloaded the data from the black boxes in both cars. He testified that data from the black box indicated the Irwin vehicle drove at a “constant speed of 75 mph.” While McMillen agreed Deputy Smith failed to yield to oncoming traffic, he opined that “the excessive speed of the Irwin vehicle was a proximate cause of the accident.”
Ultimately, the trial court, sitting as the finder of fact, determined Deputy Smith exercised at least some degree of care, even if he was negligent in failing to stop and/or perceive the Irwins’ vehicle prior to entering the intersection. Based upon this factual finding, the trial court found the deputy was not acting in reckless disregard. MCOA affirmed.
The MTCA shields the government from liability based on 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.
Reckless disregard denotes more than mere negligence, but less than an intentional act. Further, reckless disregard is found when the conduct involved evinced not only some appreciation of the unreasonable risk involved, but also a deliberate disregard of that risk and the high probability of harm involved.
A. Case where reckless disregard not found
In Maldonado, an officer approached the stop sign of an intersection. He stated he stopped and looked both ways for oncoming traffic. Seeing none, he drove through the intersection. However, the officer’s view was partially blocked by a water tower, and his car collided with another man’s car. But there was no evidence that the man was speeding at the time of the accident. MSC held that any mistake made by the law enforcement officer did not constitute reckless disregard.
In determining whether the officer’s actions constituted reckless disregard, the Court considered that the officer was aware of the nature of the intersection and took steps to avoid the collision. Specifically, he exercised due care by stopping and looking both ways before driving through an intersection. While the officer may have been negligent, the Court ultimately ruled there was no indication he acted with deliberate disregard to the consequences of attempting to cross the intersection.
B. Case where reckless disregard found
In Maye, a deputy was leaving the parking lot of the Pearl River County jail. After checking all his rear view mirrors, he backed his car from the parking space straight up the incline to the entrance of the parking lot. Even though the deputy checked his mirrors, he testified he could not see the road from the parking lot because the jail and the lot sit below the level of the road. The deputy was attempting to back up the incline far enough into the entrance to make a left hand turn through the parking lot and then exit the parking lot through another entrance onto a road.
As the deputy was leaving, a woman was driving into the parking lot. She saw the deputy backing toward her car and blew her horn. But he backed into her car nonetheless.
In determining whether the deputy acted with reckless disregard, MSC considered several facts. First, the deputy backed out of the parking lot knowing he could not see the cars behind him. Next, although he checked his mirrors, the deputy knew this would not allow him to see oncoming cars. Lastly, the Court stated that based on the damages to the woman’s car, it was obvious the deputy drove much too fast. Ultimately, the Court found the deputy’s actions rose above simple negligence to the level of reckless disregard of the safety and well-being of others.
C. This case
Like the officer in Maldonado, Deputy Smith was aware of the nature of the intersection. When asked if he was familiar with the intersection, he responded, “Yes.” Deputy Smith had driven through the intersection many times. The deputy also testified he took steps to avoid a collision. He repeatedly stated throughout the trial that he recalled stopping at the intersection and making sure the highway was clear before driving through the intersection.
The Estates cite Maye to support their contention that Deputy Smith acted with reckless disregard. But this case is distinguishable from Maye. Unlike the officer in Maye, Deputy Smith never testified he was unable to see the highway. In fact, the deputy testified that nothing obstructed his vision that day. Deputy Smith also testified he made sure the highway was clear before driving through the intersection. Lastly, there was no evidence Deputy Smith sped through the intersection. However, there was uncontested evidence the Irwin SUV was driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.
There was essentially one disputed fact at trial: whether Deputy Smith looked for traffic before crossing Highway 6. The Estates’ expert testified the proximate cause of the accident was Deputy Smith’s failure to yield, but Deputy Smith testified he looked for oncoming traffic before driving through the intersection. While Deputy Smith’s testimony that he stopped at the stop bar directly conflicts with the black box data, this does not lead to the inescapable conclusion that all his testimony lacked credibility. Sitting as the finder of fact, the trial court found credible the deputy’s testimony that he looked but did not see the Irwins before crossing. As a result, this case is closer to Maldonado than Maye, and the deputy’s negligence does not rise to the level of reckless disregard.
Whether Deputy Smith acted with reckless disregard was a question of fact for the trial court to resolve at trial. The trial court held Deputy Smith more likely than not looked in both directions before crossing the highway, but he simply failed to see the Irwins’ SUV. Because this act of negligence does not rise to the level of reckless disregard required to compensate a claimant under the MTCA, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.