Questions linger in lawsuit against county

GREENFIELD — The state’s appellate court has decided the Hancock County Commissioners aren’t liable for the death of a McCordsville man killed in a car accident at a county intersection in 2012. But some questions brought up in the lawsuit remain unanswered, appellate judges say, and they’ve sent the case back to the local courts for a new ruling.

The suit concerns the death of Phillip “Matt” Jones, who died July 5, 2012, at the intersection of county roads 400W and 200N. Jones, 32, was driving a truck northbound on County Road 400W when he collided with a car heading westbound on County Road 200N.

Had there been more warning signs in the area, Jones might not have died, his family claimed in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2014 against the county, saying its leaders should have done more to monitor the intersection and make it safer, court documents state.

Locally, Hancock County Circuit Court Judge Richard Culver ruled the commissioners could not be held liable for any person’s death. Culver’s decision, however, did not properly address the family’s claim that the county did not monitor traffic patterns in the area or add warning signs to make it safer, court of appeals Judge Elaine Brown wrote.

The appellate court’s duty is to ensure all steps of the judicial system are followed properly, not to weigh new evidence. The commissioners and the attorneys representing them failed to request a ruling from Culver on the family’s claims about monitoring or changing the intersection in the legal paperwork filed in response to the original lawsuit, and therefore the county is not entitled to a decision by the appellate court, Brown wrote in court documents.

While the appeals court agreed the commissioners and county highway department could not be held liable for Jones’ death, Brown sent the lawsuit back to Culver to readdress for a new ruling on their responsibility to maintain a safe intersection, court records show.

The intersection at county roads 400W and 200N was a two-way street at the time of the accident, records show. Jones did not have a stop sign on County Road 400W; a teenage driver told police she stopped on County Road 200N but did not see Jones’ vehicle coming toward her, so she pulled into the intersection.

Jones’ truck flipped when the cars collided. He was not wearing a seat belt and was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Joneses’ lawsuit claimed that had the county commissioners and highway department more diligently monitored the intersection where the accident occurred, they would have known the number of accidents happening there and would have taken steps to make the area safer, court documents state.

Local leaders failed to protect Jones and other Hancock County drivers, Jones’ family said in the lawsuit. They asked a judge to force the county to compensate them for the emotional damage they suffered and the income they lost when Jones died, court records state.

Culver’s original judgement says state law protects the county, like all government entities, from being held liable for failing to convert the two-way stop at the intersection into a four-way stop.

County commissioners voted to make the intersection at county roads 400W and 200N a four-way stop in the weeks following Jones’s death.

Hancock County is represented in the lawsuit by Indianapolis attorney Patrick Elward; the Joneses are represented by Indianapolis attorney James Stephenson. Neither lawyer could be reached for comment.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.