In May of 2019, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion in an Indiana premises liability case discussing whether the jury should have been presented with the evidence that the plaintiff was not wearing a hard hat when he was injured. Finding that Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act precluded the admission of a plaintiff’s failure to wear safety equipment unless such a failure was related to the cause of his injury, the court reversed the jury’s verdict in favor of the defendant and ordered a new trial.
According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff agreed to help his friend, the defendant, cut down trees on his property. The two agreed the plaintiff would operate the chain saw, and the defendant would keep an eye out for any hazards. While the plaintiff was cutting down a tree, a dead branch fell onto the plaintiff’s head, resulting in near-fatal injuries. The plaintiff was not wearing a hardhat.
At trial, the defendant presented evidence to the jury that the plaintiff did not wear a hardhat and thus assumed the risk of any injury that befell him. The defendant explicitly told the court that he was not arguing that the plaintiff’s injuries would have been less serious if he was wearing a hardhat; the sole focus of the defendant’s argument was that the plaintiff was negligent himself, and should not be permitted to recover for his injuries. The court concluded that the evidence could be used “to show assumption of risk, comparative fault, and whether [the plaintiff] acted as a reasonably careful person.” The jury ultimately found that the plaintiff was 51% at fault and the defendant 49% at fault. Under the Indiana Comparative Fault Act, the plaintiff recovered nothing. The plaintiff appealed.