Articles Posted in Indiana Supreme Court Decisions

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Indiana issued a written opinion in a personal injury case brought by a woman who was injured when another student jump-kicked the bag she had volunteered to hold during karate practice. Ultimately, the court determined that, because jump kicks are an ordinary within the sport of karate, the defendant did not breach the duty he owed to the plaintiff.

Jump KickThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was a black-belt at a karate studio. During a practice session, she volunteered to hold the bag during a drill called “kick the bag.” She stood behind the bag and placed one foot in front of the other to brace herself, as she had done many times in the past. The drill consisted of sprinting towards the bag, and then kicking the bag with one foot, keeping the other foot on the ground.

The defendant was newer to the practice of karate, and had only obtained his green belt. When it was the defendant’s turn, he ran towards the bag but rather than keep one foot on the floor, both feet left the ground. The force from the defendant’s “jump kick” was so great that it knocked the plaintiff down, resulting in her injuring her knee.

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Medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits go through several phases before the case is submitted to a jury at trial. Two of the most important pre-trial phases are the discovery phase and the summary judgment stage. The discovery phase is where the parties exchange relevant information to the case that the opposing party may not have or know to exist. Certain discovery, even of unfavorable information, is mandatory.

medical instrumentsThe summary judgment stage is where either party can ask the court to enter judgment on a case before the case is submitted to a jury. In order for a judge to determine whether summary judgment is appropriate, she looks at all the evidence and determines if either party is legally entitled to judgment in their favor. This is only the case when there are no “issues of material fact,” meaning that there are no legal issues that can be resolved in favor of the non-moving party that could result in that party’s victory.

Defendant’s Summary Judgment in Medical Malpractice Case Reversed on Appeal

In a recent case in front of the Indiana Supreme Court, the court corrected a lower court’s error in granting summary judgment to a defendant when it was not legally appropriate. In the case, Siner v. Kindred Hospital Limited Partnership, the plaintiffs were the surviving family members of a women who died a short time after being treated at the defendant hospital. The plaintiffs filed a medical malpractice lawsuit, claiming that the poor treatment at the defendant’s hospital resulted in the death of their loved one.

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In a decision that was released last month by the Indiana Supreme Court, the dismissal of a negligence lawsuit against a security company that employed a man who shot and paralyzed a woman while on the job was reversed, and the security company may be found liable for the woman’s injuries through a settlement or jury trial. This ruling appears to expand the breadth of claims that Indiana courts will allow to proceed to trial, possibly allowing Indiana personal injury and wrongful death victims to pursue more avenues to obtain compensation for their losses.

supreme-court-1-1224507Resident Who Had Relationship With Security Officer is Shot After an Argument With Him While on Duty

The appeal in Knighten v. Davis Security Service was filed based on an incident in East Chicago, Indiana, that occurred on August 7, 2010 when a security officer employed by a company that was hired to provide security for the housing complex shot a woman whom he had previously dated after the two had an argument that appeared to be related to personal issues between them. Before the shots were fired, the woman had damaged the entrance gate to the complex.

As a result of the shooting, the woman is now paralyzed from the waist down, and she filed a lawsuit against the man who shot her, the security company that employed him, and the housing authority that contracted with the company to provide security. At the center of the recent ruling was the woman’s claim against the security company that employed the man, and whether the company can be held financially accountable for the man’s conduct.

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In an opinion released earlier this year, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the local chapter of a fraternity at an Indiana college may be financially liable for the damages allegedly incurred by a student while he was a pledge for the fraternity. In the same opinion, the Court held that the college itself and the national fraternity organization could not be held liable for the injuries.

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An Incident of Hazing
The plaintiff in Yost v College, Ind Supreme Court, 2014 (No. 54S01-1303-CT-161.), was a freshman at Wabash College and a pledge at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. On September 4, 2007, he was placed in a headlock by other fraternity brothers and held under a shower. The plaintiff lost consciousness, and the other fraternity members holding him dropped him, inflicting a head injury. After the hazing incident, the plaintiff filed an Indiana personal injury lawsuit against the individuals that hazed him, the local fraternity chapter, the national fraternity, and the college itself. The plaintiff argued that the college and fraternity organizations had a duty to prevent the type of conduct that caused his injury.

The Court’s First Decision
When the case was first filed, the college and fraternity organizations argued that they had no duty to prevent negligence or criminal activity that occurred in the hazing event. The plaintiff argued that the college and local fraternity had the duty of a landlord to protect him from reasonably foreseeable negligent or criminal activity. The trial court decided that the plaintiff had consented to the “horseplay,” and that his injuries were cause of the one fraternity brother negligently or criminally causing him to lose consciousness. As a result of this ruling, the cases against the college and two fraternity organizations were thrown out, although the plaintiff’s case against the one “fraternity brother” that caused him to lose consciousness was allowed to continue.
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In a somewhat surprising decision by the Indiana Supreme Court last month, the Court reversed two lower Courts’ rulings that a Plaintiff’s medical malpractice suit was not filed within the statute of limitations. In the case of Moryl v. Ransone, the Indiana Supreme Court accepted the Plaintiff’s argument that a medical malpractice suit shall be considered filed when the complainant delivers the complaint to a commercial courier service (i.e. UPS or FedEx), and not when the defendant receives the complaint. This appears to be a minor distinction, but in this case it meant everything to the Plaintiff’s case.

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The Case

On April 20, 2007, the Plaintiff’s husband died while under the care of the Defendant doctors and hospital. The circumstances of the death were suspicious to the Plaintiff, and she pursued a medical malpractice claim against the Defendants. The statute of limitations for an Indiana medical malpractice claim is two years, meaning that a medical malpractice complaint must be filed no more than two years after the alleged malpractice occurred or else it must be dismissed. Here, the Plaintiff mailed the complaint to the Indiana Department of Insurance, using FedEx overnight, on April 19, 2009 – one day before the statute of limitations expired. The Defendant received the complaint on April 21, 2009, or one day after the statute had expired.

The Trial Court’s Decision

When the case was heard by the District Court, the Defendants argued that under Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act (“the Act”), a complaint is considered filed only when it is sent by US Postal Service Registered or Certified mail. If a complaint is sent any other way, the Act states, it is to be considered filed upon receipt by the Defendant. Because the text of the Malpractice Act is clear that a complaint is only considered filed upon mailing by Certified or Registered mail, and the Defendants received the complaint one day after the statute of limitations expired, the District Court dismissed the complaint under the Act.
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The Indiana Tort Claims Act requires those who have suffered an injury and plan to sue a municipality provide notice to that municipality within 180 days of the injury or loss. This is to put the municipality on notice of the charges against it and to allow the municipality an adequate opportunity to investigate the occurrence and develop any possible defenses.

car-accident-671890-m.jpgIn a recent case in front of the Indiana Supreme Court, the question arose: can a claimant’s notice act to restrict the scope of her future lawsuit? The facts of the case will illuminate any confusion.

The plaintiff was rear-ended by an Indianapolis police officer in July of 2008. The next month, the plaintiff filed a tort claim notice to the City, explaining what had happened, attaching photographs of the accident, etc. In addition, the notice contained the following statement:

Damage: Rear Bumper and side panels damaged, see estimate from Sam Swope. No injuries.
Claim: $960.99

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309px-TVA_phosphate_smelting_furnace.jpgAfter her husband allegedly died from the effects of asbestos exposure, an Indiana woman filed suit against a company that provided services to his former employer. Her wrongful death lawsuit in Gill v. Evansville Sheet Metal Works, Inc. asserted claims for products liability and contractor negligence. Although the trial court dismissed both claims, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, the Indiana Supreme Court allowed the case to proceed on the contractor negligence claim.

Gale Gill worked for Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa, at its plant in Newburgh, Indiana from approximately 1963 until 1986. As a “pot room worker,” he was tasked with the operation, maintenance, and repair of smelting pots. He allegedly experienced asbestos exposure during his time at the plant as a result of other people using and handling products that contained asbestos. In 2004, doctors diagnosed him with an asbestos-related illness. He died of lung cancer on May 4, 2005.

Sharon Gill, Gale Gill’s wife, filed suit against an Alcoa contractor, Evansville Sheet Metal Works, Inc. (ESMW), on May 4, 2007. ESMW allegedly provided services to Alcoa at the same work site where Gale Gill had all or part of his asbestos exposure. The exact time and location of ESMW’s alleged work remains undetermined, although all parties agree that any work that might have caused asbestos exposure occurred prior to 1989. The lawsuit went into the Mass Tort Asbestos Litigation Docket in Marion County, where it became subject to a stay.
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401px-Decatur-indiana-courthouse.jpgThe Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that a man who was injured when his father drove into him, pinning him between two vehicles, may sue for damages. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit in Robert L. Clark, Jr. et al vs. Robert L. Clark, Sr., based on a state law that bars suit between family members in certain circumstances. The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s dismissal based on a different reading of the state law, and the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s decision.

Robert Clark, Sr. was driving a car on September 5, 2007, in which his son, 46 year-old Robert Clark, Jr., was a passenger. The son got out of the car when they got to their destination in order to direct his father into a parking spot. He stood several feet in front of the car and motioned his father forward into a parking space. Once the car was fully in the spot, the son motioned to his father to stop the car. The father pressed the accelerator instead of the brake pedal. The car lurched forward into Robert Clark Jr., pinning him between his father’s vehicle and the adjacent vehicle and causing extensive injuries to his legs.

Robert Clark, Jr. and his wife, Debra Clark, sued Robert Clark, Sr. for negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment for Robert Sr. based on his assertion of the Indiana Guest Statute as an affirmative defense. The Guest Statute bars suit for injuries against the operator of a vehicle by a family member of the operator, or a hitchhiker, provided the injury occurred while the person “was being transported without payment in or upon” the vehicle. The statute allows an exception for “wanton or willful misconduct” by the driver.
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More and more often, trial counsel try to impose the requirements of Indiana Rule of Evidence (“IRE”) 702 to limit and/or exclude expert testimony. Certainly, in the context of personal injury litigation, the parties can be expected to battle about who is qualified to render an expert opinion as to whether the collision, fall, etc. caused the plaintiff’s personal injuries. In recent cases handed down by the Indiana Supreme Court (Bennett v. Richmond, 960 N.E.2d 782 (Ind. 2012); Person v. Shipley, 962 N.E.2d 1192 (Ind. 2012)), we see challenges to expert testimony that went too far with arguments for more stringent requirements than are required under IRE 702. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has provided much needed guidance in this regard that will hopefully prevent unnecessary attempts to exclude proper expert testimony.

We have seen challenges to a psychologist/neuropsychologist’s qualification to testify as to the cause of a person’s brain injury. In Bennett, a psychologist testified that the plaintiff had a traumatic brain injury that was caused by the rear-end motor vehicle collision in which he was involved (plaintiff’s van was struck in the rear by a 42,000 pound truck). Defense counsel objected to this testimony, arguing the psychologist’s opinion was inadmissible under IRE 702.

It is clear that in Indiana a psychologist may testify as to the existence of a brain injury or the condition of the brain in general – the question addressed in Bennett was whether psychologists/neuropsychologists may testify as to the cause of a brain injury.

In Bennett, the Court of Appeals had agreed with the defense argument that psychologists who are not medical doctors, but otherwise qualified under IRE 702 to offer expert testimony as to the existence and evaluation of a brain injury, are not qualified to offer an opinion about causation without demonstrating sufficient medical expertise in determining the etiology of brain injuries. However, this standard goes beyond that which is required under IRE 702. Even though the psychologist did not have medical education or training regarding etiology of brain injuries, the Supreme Court held this was not fatal under an IRE 702 analysis because the psychologist demonstrated: his knowledge of how a brain injury might result from the whiplash motion experienced in a rear-ending accident; how such a brain injury results in symptoms similar to those experienced by the plaintiff; and how psychological and neuropsychological testing reveals the relationship between that brain injury and behavior.
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