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Throneberry v. Missouri State Highway Patrol

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

May 16, 2017


         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Platte County, Missouri The Honorable James W.Van Amburg, Judge

          Before: Anthony Rex Gabbert, Presiding Judge, Victor C. Howard, Judge and Cynthia L. Martin, Judge

          Cynthia L. Martin, Judge

         Dwayne Throneberry ("Throneberry") appeals from the trial court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the Missouri State Highway Patrol ("MSHP") and Trooper Dustin Lyle ("Trooper Lyle") (collectively "the Defendants"). Throneberry argues that the trial court erred because, as a matter of law, Trooper Lyle's actions during a police pursuit were the proximate cause of a collision that killed Throneberry's sister. Throneberry also argues that the trial court erred because there was a genuine issue of material fact in dispute regarding Trooper Lyle's state of mind which prevented the entry of summary judgment on Throneberry's recklessness claim against both Defendants. We affirm.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         At approximately 1:00 p.m. on August 13, 2012, Trooper Matthew Yoder ("Trooper Yoder") was informed via radio that a suspect was stealing vehicles in the St. Joseph, Missouri area. Trooper Yoder positioned his patrol car on Interstate 29 to intercept the suspect's vehicle if it proceeded southbound on the interstate. At approximately 2:14 p.m., Trooper Yoder was notified that the suspect had stolen a maroon sports utility vehicle ("SUV"). Shortly thereafter, Trooper Yoder observed a maroon SUV traveling southbound at a high rate of speed and passing vehicles on the right shoulder. Trooper Yoder initiated a pursuit of the maroon SUV at 2:17 p.m. When the suspect entered a rest area at a high rate of speed, Trooper Yoder terminated the pursuit at 2:18 p.m., and deactivated his patrol car's emergency lights and siren.

         The suspect drove through the rest area and merged onto southbound Interstate 29. Trooper Yoder reentered the interstate and reactivated his patrol car's emergency lights and siren. He was required to travel at a high rate of speed to catch up to the suspect's vehicle. As soon as the emergency lights and siren were within sight and hearing distance of the maroon SUV driven by the suspect, the suspect started swerving through traffic and driving aggressively. Trooper Yoder again deactivated his emergency lights and siren, and pulled off on the right shoulder of Interstate 29. The suspect continued traveling southbound on the interstate, and Trooper Yoder lost sight of the maroon SUV.

         Shortly thereafter, the suspect drove to a gas station near Platte City, Missouri on Highway 92, where he carjacked a person using a pellet gun. The suspect fled in a white Buick, and was seen driving toward Leavenworth, Kansas on Highway 92. Sometime later, the Platte County Sheriff's Department reported that the suspect had invaded a home located five miles south of Beverly, Missouri, and had confronted the homeowner with a knife. Trooper Lyle was stopped on 45 Highway and observed a white Buick traveling down a private drive from the address where the home invasion occurred. The suspect was observed turning north onto Highway 45 from the private drive.

         Using radar equipment, Trooper Lyle observed the suspect rapidly accelerate to seventy-five miles per hour. Trooper Lyle turned his patrol car around, caught up to the suspect's car, and then activated his emergency lights and siren. Trooper Lyle's pursuit of the suspect began at 2:46 p.m. The suspect and Trooper Lyle continued northbound on Highway 45 until the suspect turned east on Highway 92. While traveling on Highway 92, the suspect reached a top speed of approximately ninety-one miles per hour, and the suspect's car crossed the center line. As the suspect and Trooper Lyle reached the crest of a hill, Trooper Lyle saw another vehicle traveling west in the eastbound lane of Highway 92. The suspect swerved to the right shoulder to avoid the other vehicle. The suspect's car then struck an embankment before returning to the highway and crossing the center line. The suspect's car struck a vehicle driven by Antwinette Holtsclaw ("Holtsclaw") in the westbound lane before coming to rest on the side of the highway. Holtsclaw was pronounced dead at the scene, and the suspect was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Trooper Lyle's pursuit of the suspect lasted two minutes over approximately two miles.

         Throneberry, as the surviving brother of and plaintiff ad litem for Holtsclaw, filed a petition ("Petition") for damages arising from Holtsclaw's death against the Defendants in the circuit court of Jackson County. The Defendants moved for venue to be transferred to Platte County, which was granted. The Petition alleged that "Holtsclaw's death was directly and proximately caused by Defendant Lyle's decision to engage in an unnecessary and dangerous high-speed pursuit despite the fact that his colleague, Trooper Yoder, and [sic] called off his pursuit of the same subject due to safety concerns." The Petition asserted claims of negligence and wrongful death (Count I), negligence per se (Count II), and recklessness (Count III) against both Defendants. The Petition further asserted claims of failure to train, instruct, and supervise Trooper Lyle (Count IV), and negligence pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior (Count V) against MSHP.

         The Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment ("Motion") as to all claims set forth in the Petition. The Motion asserted that summary judgment was appropriate because: (1) "The negligent and criminal acts by a third-party driver, not Lyle's actions, were the proximate cause of the accident"; (2) "Defendant Lyle is entitled to official immunity"; (3) "Plaintiff's claims are barred by the public duty doctrine"; (4) "The Missouri State Highway Patrol has sovereign immunity from suit as an agency of the State of Missouri"; and (5) "Plaintiff failed to plead the necessary elements for negligence per se." Throneberry opposed the Motion.

         Following briefing and oral argument, the trial court sustained the Motion and entered judgment on all counts in favor of the Defendants. The trial court explained:

This Court finds that Defendant Lyle's pursuit is not the proximate cause of the collision between the fleeing suspect's vehicle and the vehicle of the Plaintiff's decedent, and accordingly, summary judgment is granted in favor of Trooper Dustin Lyle for counts I, II, and III.
. . . [B]ecause there is no proximate cause relationship between the alleged actions of Defendant Lyle and the death of Plaintiffs' [sic] decedent, the MSHP is not liable. . . . Therefore, summary judgment is granted in favor of Missouri State Highway Patrol on all counts.

         Throneberry appeals.

         Standard of Review

         Our Supreme Court set forth the standard of review for the grant of summary judgment in Goerlitz v. City of Maryville:

The trial court makes its decision to grant summary judgment based on the pleadings, record submitted, and the law; therefore, this Court need not defer to the trial court's determination and reviews the grant of summary judgment de novo. ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-America Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993); Rule 74.04. In reviewing the decision to grant summary judgment, this Court applies the same criteria as the trial court in determining whether summary judgment was proper. Id. Summary judgment is only proper if the moving party establishes that there is no genuine issue as to the material facts and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. The facts contained in affidavits or otherwise in support of a party's motion are accepted "as true unless contradicted by the non-moving party's response to the summary judgment motion." Id. Only genuine disputes as to material facts preclude summary judgment. Id. at 378. A material fact in the context of summary judgment is one from which the right to judgment flows. Id.
A defending party . . . may establish a right to summary judgment by demonstrating: (1) facts negating any one of the elements of the non-movant's claim; (2) "that the non-movant, after an adequate period for discovery, has not been able and will not be able to produce sufficient evidence to allow the trier of fact to find the existence of any one" of the elements of the non-movant's claim; or (3) "that there is no genuine dispute as to the existence of the facts necessary to support movant's properly pleaded affirmative defense." Id. at 381. Each of these three methods individually "establishes the right to judgment as a matter of law." Id.

333 S.W.3d 450, 452-53 (Mo. banc 2011). In determining whether the moving party has established a basis for summary judgment, we review the record below "in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was entered, and that party is entitled to the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the record." Id. at 453. Further, "[i]f, as a matter of law, the [trial] court's judgment is sustainable on any theory, it should be affirmed on appeal." Id.


         Throneberry asserts two points on appeal. Throneberry's first point on appeal argues that the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of the Defendants because Trooper Lyle's pursuit of the suspect was the proximate cause of the collision that killed Holtsclaw, an assertion that, if true, would require reversal of summary judgment on all five counts of the Petition. Throneberry's second point on appeal argues that it was error to enter summary judgment on Count III of the Petition, Throneberry's recklessness claim, because a genuine issue of material fact regarding Trooper Lyle's state of mind prohibited concluding as a matter of law that proximate cause could not be established.

         Though Throneberry's inability to establish the essential element of proximate cause was the express basis for the trial court's entry of summary judgment, we "may affirm if the record shows that summary judgment was appropriate either on the basis it was granted by the trial court or on an entirely different basis, if supported by the record." Brehm v. Bacon Twp., 426 S.W.3d 1, 4 (Mo. banc 2014). The Defendants argue that the trial court's judgment should be affirmed not only on the basis therein expressed, but also based on application of the official immunity doctrine, the public duty doctrine, and sovereign immunity.

         For the reasons herein explained, we conclude that the trial court did not err in entering summary judgment in favor of the Defendants.

         I. Trooper Lyle was shielded from liability on Throneberry's claims for negligence, negligence per se, and recklessness (Counts I, II, and III of the Petition) by the official immunity and public duty doctrines

         "Missouri has long-applied the doctrine of official immunity." Southers v. City of Farmington, 263 S.W.3d 603, 610 (Mo. banc 2008). The official immunity doctrine "protects public employees from liability for alleged acts of negligence committed during the course of their official duties for the performance of discretionary acts." Id. "A finding that a public employee is entitled to official immunity does not preclude a finding that he or she committed a negligent act--because official immunity does not deny the existence of the tort of negligence, but instead provides that an officer will not be liable for damages caused by his negligence." Id. at 611. Thus, "[b]ecause the defense of official immunity is personal to a public employee, it cannot extend to protect his employing governmental entity sued under the doctrine of respondeat superior." Id.

         "The official immunity doctrine, however, does not provide public employees immunity for torts committed when acting in a ministerial capacity." Id. at 610. And "[e]ven a discretionary act . . . will not be protected by official immunity if the conduct is willfully wrong or done with malice or corruption." Id.

         The official immunity doctrine operates to shield Trooper Lyle from tort liability in this case. Pursuit of a fleeing suspect is recognized as a police officer response to an emergency. Id. at 618-19. A police officer's conduct in pursuing a fleeing suspect "involve[s] the kind of discretionary decisions that require professional expertise and judgment that the official immunity doctrine is intended to protect." Id. at 619 (citing Brown v. Tate, 888 S.W.2d 413, 415 (Mo. App. W.D. 1994)). Throneberry concedes this point, as his response to the Defendants' summary judgment motion admits that Trooper Lyle "considered numerous factors when assessing whether or not to pursue the subject." [L.F. 122] In fact, Throneberry's statement of additional uncontroverted facts cites to MSHP's written policy on vehicular pursuits. The policy requires, among other things, the officer's consideration of "[c]hanging circumstances or conditions" to make a judgment about whether "the risk to public safety associated with continued pursuit [is] greater than the public safety benefit of making an immediate apprehension." [L.F. 180] This is the essence of a discretionary act. Cf. Ministerial, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining the term as "of, relating to, or involving an act that involves obedience to instructions or laws instead of discretion, ...

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