Franklin County government and the Franklin Co. Sheriff’s Department filed official answers this week to a trio of civil lawsuits surrounding the flooding-related deaths of county residents last spring.

The suits were filed on behalf of surviving family members of KyLee Mosier, 4, Elysium Lewis, 7, Ethan Williams, 13, and Felina Lewis, 35, all of whom perished the morning of March 20, 2020 when Sanes Creek Bridge near Laurel was washed away after excessive rainfall.

The Franklin County Highway Department, as well as one former county council member, filed a motion to dismiss all claims against themselves; FCHD cited the fact it is a department of the county and not a separate government entity capable of being sued. The department stated that the county and sheriff’s department were the proper legal entities, and both have provided answers.

The county has retained Liberty L. Roberts, an attorney with Noblesville’s Church Church Hittle & Antrim, who presented answers to plaintiffs Joshua Mosier (father to Mosier and E. Lewis), Daphne Lewis (personal representative for F. Lewis) and Billy Williams III (father to Williams). The allegations and responses are nearly verbatim across the three lawsuits. Lewis promptly filed an intent to object to the highway department’s motion to dismiss.
Plaintiffs seek compensation in line with injuries and damages, costs of action, loss of life and companionship, funeral and burial expenses, personal counseling services and any other relief deemed proper. They claim the county was negligent in maintaining and inspecting the bridge and its surroundings, not warning the public of potential hazards, and finally not responding urgently to 911 calls – between 3:14 and 4:46 a.m. that morning – warning of an impassable bridge on Sanes Creek Road. The suits claim all this constituted conduct that was a “direct and proximate cause” of the deaths.

The response(s) each contain four affirmative defenses: 1) Plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; 2) Defendants are entitled to immunity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act (IC-34-13-3-3); 3) Plaintiffs and/or decedents’ contributory negligence may bar plaintiffs’ recovery; 4) Defendants reserve the right to assert additional affirmative defenses that may arise in the course of the investigation and discovery.
As to the second defense, Mosier had claimed no entitlement to immunity as “the condition of the roadway was a permanent condition of which defendants had knowledge of and good time to act and knowingly failed to do so.”

The county emphasized denial, throughout, on the allegations that the condition was a permanent condition of the roadway.

Also denied were charges that the defendants knew that water escaping the banks of Sanes Creek or other creeks and rivers in Franklin County would wash away the road, making the roadway unpassable by the general public; that FCSD failed to properly train and supervise their employees to know what calls needed to be immediately reported to those responsible for roadways; that the county failed to warn the public of the complete wash-out and destruction of the bridge/roadway (an extremely dangerous and hazardous condition).

Causes of action also denied were failure to exercise reasonable care in inspecting/maintaining the bridge; creating a hazard by allowing debris to gather under the bridge; failure to exercise diligence in keeping streets/bridges in a reasonably safe condition; failure to reasonably respond to the hazardous condition, despite having actual knowledge; the inactions constituted willful or wanton misconduct.

The sheriff’s department denied the following: failure to exercise reasonable care in responding to a 4:18 a.m. call warning of the hazardous condition; FCSD ignored and perpetuated the dangerous condition of the roadway to the detriment of the public; failure to contact highway upon receiving notice of the condition.

The defendants admitted several factual/background statements from the complaints. There were no denials of the 911 warning calls answered by the call center, nor of the failure to immediately dispatch deputies or contact Franklin County Highway Department. FCSD admitted that an internal investigation was conducted the afternoon of March 20, regarding which dispatchers were on duty and how those overnight calls were logged.

The complaints claim the calls were logged as information calls (I-calls), which do not need clearance by an FCSD officer. This was denied by the defendants, upon lack of information. However, dialogue between FCSD Maj. Gregory Mehlbauer and a dispatcher during the investigation revealed that the dispatcher said “It looks like (the 4:18 call) was made an I-call”; the dialogue was not denied. Another dispatcher statement admitted to was “I called (dispatcher) Brendon Durham to ask him if he had contacted county highway, and he said he did not.”

Citing lack of information, the FCSD denied that the call center supervisor also failed to contact the highway department in response to the 4:18 call.
On several points, the defendants cited lack of sufficient information, including the claim that call center employees were posting to personal social media accounts at the time the calls were coming in.

At least one allegation was referred to as a legal conclusion by the defendants, who said no response was required: “(FC) has a duty to design, build and maintain Sanes Creek Bridge and the banks leading up to bridge to insure known and reasonably anticipated rainfalls can be handled by the creek and bridge, or if such bridge is not capable of handling such (rains), to notify the general public that road and bridge are not safe for traveling when they are notified road has been destroyed.”