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Smith v. Holler Crawlers Off-Road Club, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

September 22, 2014

JOEY SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
HOLLER CRAWLERS OFF-ROAD CLUB, INC., ASHER LAND AND MINERAL, LLLP, ASHER COAL MINING COMPANY, ALBEY BROCK, individually and in his official capacity, RICK CORNETT, individually and in his official capacity, HAROLD BROCK, individually and in his official capacity, LONNIE MAIDEN, JR., individually and in his official capacity, COYLE SILCOX, individually and in his official capacity, BILL PARTIN, individually and in his official capacity, JON GRACE, individually and in his official capacity, and YAMAHA CORPORATION, USA, Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

KAREN K. CALDWELL, Chief District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the motion to dismiss (DE 21) filed by the seven individual defendants in this matter. Those defendants are Albey Brock, Rick Cornett, Harold Brock, Lonnie Maiden, Jr., Coyle Silcox, Bill Partin, and Jon Grace. Defendant Brock was Bell County judge executive during the relevant time period. Defendants Cornett, Brock, Maiden, Silcox, and Partin were magistrates of the Bell County Fiscal Court. Defendant Grace was Bell County Adventure Tourism Director. The plaintiff Joey Smith sues each of these defendants in their individual and official capacities as public officials of Bell County, Kentucky.

I. Background

The plaintiff Smith asserts that he took part in an event in Bell County at the Wilderness Trail Off-Road Park. According to the plaintiff, the park consists of 9, 000 acres and "advertises over 120 miles of off-road trails available to drivers of ATV's, sideby-sides, dirt bikes, jeeps, trucks and other off-road vehicles." (DE 5, Complaint ¶ 15.) According to the plaintiff, the park is operated by the county. (DE 25 at CM-ECF p. 5.) The event at issue occurred the weekend of October 19, 2012 and was organized by the defendant Holler Crawlers Off-Road Club, Inc. (DE 5, Complaint ¶ 8.)

The event included a Holler Crawler Haunted Forest Ride, the goal of which was to "break the world record for most ATV's and utility terrain vehicles in a parade." (Complaint ¶ 18.) The forest ride occurred the afternoon of October 20, 2012. (DE 5, Complaint ¶ 18.) That evening, a "haunted trail ride" and a concert took place on the property. (DE 5, Complaint ¶ 19; DE 30-1, Mem. at 1.)

At about 4:00 that afternoon, an event participant named Steve Payne was killed when two underage motorcylists collided with his motorcyle. (DE 30-1, Mem. at 2.) A couple of hours later, the plaintiff Joey Smith was driving a side-by-side ATV to the concert with Luke Woodward and two other passengers. (DE 30-1, Mem. at 2.) Smith's ATV was overturned and he and Woodward were injured. (DE 30-1, Mem. at 2.)

The Court construes Smith's complaint to assert a negligence claim against all of the individual defendants. These defendants move to dismiss the claim against them.

I. Analysis

The claims against the individual defendants in their official capacities must be dismissed under the doctrine of official immunity. "Kentucky counties are cloaked with sovereign immunity. This immunity flows from the Commonwealth's inherent immunity by virtue of a Kentucky county's status as an arm or political subdivision of the Commonwealth." Lexington-Fayette Urban County Gov't v. Smolcic, 142 S.W.3d 128, 132 (Ky.2004) (citations omitted). When fiscal court members are sued in their official capacity, the action is essentially brought against the county. Edmonson County v. French, 394 S.W.3d 410, 414 (Ky. App. 2013) (citations omitted). Like the county, the fiscal court and its members, who are sued in their official capacity, are entitled to sovereign immunity. Id. Accordingly, the claims against the individual defendants in their "official capacity" will be dismissed.

The individual defendants also allege that the claims against them in their individual capacities should be dismissed under the doctrine of qualified official immunity. While public officials sued in their official capacities are entitled to absolute immunity, public officials sued in their individual capacities "enjoy only qualified official immunity, which affords protection from damages liability for good faith judgment calls made in a legally uncertain environment." Yanero v. Davis, 65 S.W.3d 510, 521-22 (2001). Qualified official immunity ensures that "[o]fficials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas." Rowan County v. Sloas, 201 S.W.3d 469, 475 (Ky. 2006) (citation omitted). "Most government officials are not expected to engage in the kind of legal scholarship normally associated with law professors and academicians." Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Qualified immunity is said to protect "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Id. (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638 (1987)).

Public officials are entitled to qualified official immunity for negligent conduct when their negligent acts were 1) discretionary acts or functions; 2) made in good faith; and 3) within the scope of the employee's authority. Yanero, 65 S.W.3d at 522.

In order to determine whether the individual defendants are entitled to qualified official immunity, the Court must first determine the acts that the plaintiff alleges these defendants performed negligently.

Smith alleges that the individual defendants "planned, financed, staffed, promoted, supervised, and sponsored" the Haunted Forest Ride. (DE 5, Complaint ¶ ¶ 20, 21, 22.) As to defendant Jon Grace, the plaintiff alleges that, as the County Adventure Tourism Director, he was the "chief organizer and promoter of the events at Wilderness Trail Off-Road Park." (DE 5, Complaint, ¶¶ 6, 17.)

Smith asserts that the defendants were negligent in performing these functions because they failed to do certain things. He alleges that these defendants failed to 1) adequately staff the event, 2) institute or enforce general safe driving standards, 3) institute or enforce a minimum age requirement for participating riders, 4) ensure the participating riders had the necessary experience and proper safety equipment, 5) ensure the roadways were clearly marked and structurally safe, 6) adequately train and supervise staff, 7) adequately supervise the ...


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