Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

Indiana wrongful death claims are meant to compensate the accident victim’s spouse and dependents after their wrongful death. So, what happens if the decedent’s spouse and dependents are no longer alive by the time the case goes to trial? The Indiana Supreme Court took up the issue in a recent case.

The Facts

According to the court’s written opinion, a husband filed a claim after his wife died from complications during surgery and throughout her subsequent dialysis treatments. The husband brought a negligence claim against his wife’s surgeon, the hospital, and the dialysis treatment center, seeking damages for her death under Indiana’s wrongful death statute. The plaintiff sought damages for two general categories: “final-expense damages” and “survivor damages.” Final-expense damages included the medical, funeral, and burial expenses, and survivor damages were claimed for the loss of consortium, including loss of income, loss of employment benefits, and loss of companionship. However, the husband died while the case was still being decided. He did not leave a will and there were no apparent heirs to his estate, so the estate reverted to the state of Indiana.

The defendants argued that because the husband died, there could be no award of survivor damages, because there was no evidence to support a loss of consortium claim. They claimed that because the husband did not have any heirs, any survivor damages would pass to the state, which contradicts the purpose of a compensatory damages award for wrongful death claims.

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Recently, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion in a personal injury case illustrating an important concept that frequently arises in Indiana car accident cases. The case presented the court with the opportunity to discuss whether the plaintiff’s wrongful death case could survive the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Specifically, the issue presented to the court was whether the defendants controlled the area where the accident occurred.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was killed in a DUI accident while attending the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. The SXSW festival takes place each year in Austin, Texas, and includes numerous venues which are spread across the city. As a result, the concert organizers applied for a special use permit allowing the closure of certain roads during the festival. The area where the accident later occurred was included in the areas that the concert organizers requested be closed.

Evidently, the use permit was granted, and as a condition, the city required that “all traffic controls must be provided in accordance with the approved traffic control plan.” Organizers placed barriers around the closed portion of the street, and a uniformed police officer was placed near the intersection to keep watch.

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Last Friday, a 62-year-old steelworker who had been critically injured in a workplace accident died from his injuries. According to a report by the Chesterton Tribune, on February 8, the employee was working in a water treatment area at ArcelorMittal’s Indiana Harbor steel processing facility, and was seriously burned when he fell into a sinkhole of scalding water that had opened up near a boiler tank. He was hospitalized with severe burns, and eventually died.The Accident
The sinkhole was discovered in December of last year in an open area adjacent to a brine tank, and was the result of a leaking pipe nearby. The company placed barriers around the sinkhole, but coworkers say that the visibility in that area of the plant was often poor and obstructed by steam, and the worker may not have seen the hazard. Unfortunately, the man fell through the barrier and into the scalding water that had gathered in the sinkhole. The management, the United Steelworker’s Union, and OSHA have conducted a joint study into the cause of accident but the results have not yet been released.

It is unfortunate that the sinkhole was not filled when it was discovered, and instead it was allowed to grow larger until this tragedy occurred. Because the facility placed barriers around the hole before the accident, it is difficult to predict if the employer may be responsible for the accident until the investigation is complete. The deceased man’s family likely faces substantial medical expenses from his month long hospitalization, and his death will result in other expenses. In addition the man’s family has suffered substantial non-monetary loss in the death of their loved one.
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Almost all tort actions must be brought within a certain amount of time otherwise the plaintiff is barred from bringing their suit. This is called the “statute of limitations,” and once it has run out, the plaintiff is out of luck. However, an opinion by the Court of Appeals of Indiana recently held that fraudulent concealment can act to toll the statute of limitations.Alldredge v. Good Samaritan Home, Inc.

In Alldredge v. Good Samaritan Home, Inc., the plaintiff group was the family of a woman who was in the care of Good Samaritan Nursing Home. The woman had died, purportedly due to a fall that she suffered because of a pre-existing medical condition. However, several years after the death of their loved one, a former nursing-home employee told the family that their loved one didn’t die because of a fall.

Apparently, the nursing home covered up the fact that the woman actually had been involved in a fight with another nursing home resident, which caused her to fall. When the woman’s family filed suit against the nursing home twenty-three months after they learned the truth, the nursing home claimed that the 2-year statute of limitations had run and therefore the family didn’t have a case.
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Aaron Hernandez, former star NFL tight end for the New England Patriots, is now facing civil wrongful death charges in a Massachusetts court. Hernandez is currently being held, without bail, in solitary confinement pending the outcome of his criminal trial.According to a report by ESPN, Hernandez has plead not guilty to the murder of a friend back in June of this year. In more recent news, the family of Hernandez’s slain friend filed a wrongful death charge earlier this month claiming damages that exceed the value of Hernandez’s $1.25 million dollar home. The family of the victim has also taken legal action to prevent Hernandez from receiving the remaining $3 million from his contract with the New England Patriots.

Wrongful Death Actions in Indiana

Indiana courts have their own version of the wrongful death statute which Hernandez is being sued under. At its essence, a wrongful death action is a claim filed by the “survivors” of an accident victim seeking damages for their loss.
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“Energy drinks,” a general category of drinks with high levels of stimulants like caffeine, taurine, and guarana, have been the subject of much scrutiny in recent years, as their excessive consumption has allegedly led to multiple injuries and deaths. Four Loko, an energy drink that also contains alcohol, has been especially controversial, earning the nickname “Blackout in a Can” among many college students. A series of lawsuits has alleged that the stimulants in the beverage mask the effects of the alcohol, leading to over-consumption, risky behavior, and in some cases, injury or death.

Two insurance companies, including one based in Indiana, have filed a federal lawsuit requesting a declaration that they are not obligated to defend or indemnify Four Loko’s manufacturer, Phusion Projects, in these lawsuits. The companies have reportedly already obtained a similar declaratory judgment, meaning that it may prove difficult for future claimants to recover damages from the beverage maker.

The mixture of caffeine and alcohol, according to doctors quoted by Fort Wayne’s WANE News, can pose serious health risks by concealing the depressive effect of the alcohol content and making the individual more likely to continue drinking. The person might not feel drunk because of the caffeine content, so the person is allegedly also more likely to engage in risky behaviors like driving.
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A Nebraska law allowing wrongful death claims for unborn children is getting its first test in a federal lawsuit. The suit, Baumann v. Slezak, et al, arises from a multi-vehicle accident that killed a family of four and their unborn child. It asserts causes of action for negligence and violations of federal trucking regulations. Several states, including Indiana, have passed statutes allowing wrongful death claims for unborn children at various stages of gestation, and courts in other states have recognized causes of action related to fetal death.

The accident giving rise to the lawsuit occurred on westbound Interstate 80 during the early morning of September 9, 2012. Traffic had become backed up for about a mile after two semi-trailers collided at about 4:30 a.m. One semi-trailer had become disabled and pulled onto the right shoulder. The driver, Vladimir Zhukov, however, allegedly left the trailer in a lane of traffic. Another semi-trailer driven by Keith Johnson reportedly collided with Zhukov’s trailer. The impact killed Johnson and caused his tractor to catch fire. The accident blocked all westbound lanes of the highway, creating a significant risk of further accidents for vehicles forced to stop on the highway.

Christopher and Diana Schmidt were traveling to California from Maryland with their two children, and Diana Schmidt was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with a child they had named Ethan. Diana Schmidt was driving a 2007 Toyota Corolla with the two children, and Christopher Schmidt was following her in a 2010 Ford Mustang. They were at the rear of the line of cars stopped because of the semi-trailer accident, with the Corolla stopped behind another semi-trailer, and the Mustang behind the Corolla. A semi-trailer driven by Josef Slezak approached the stopped traffic reportedly travelling at about seventy-five miles per hour. Allegedly without slowing or stopping, Slezak’s vehicle collided with the back of the Mustang at about 5:19 a.m., propelling it into the Corolla. This pushed the Corolla under the trailer in front of it. All four members of the Schmidt family and their unborn child died in the impact.
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After decades working on repair and maintenance of railroad locomotives, a man developed malignant mesothelioma. He sued multiple companies for alleged asbestos exposure, and the executor of his estate substituted in as plaintiff upon his death. After dismissal by the district court, which was upheld by the appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the matter in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., 132 S. Ct. 1261 (2012). It affirmed the lower courts’ findings that a federal statute preempted the plaintiffs’ state tort claims.

The federal statute in question, the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq., was passed by Congress in 1915. The law requires railroad carriers to maintain locomotives “in proper condition and safe to operate.” 49 U.S.C. § 20701(1). The statute generally preempts state law claims for locomotive-related injuries. In Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926), the Supreme Court reviewed the scope of the LIA’s preemption. It held that the law preempts lawsuits brought by railroad workers as well as passengers. The question presented in the Kurns case was whether it also preempted claims for injuries caused by alleged toxic exposure related to locomotive repair and maintenance, as opposed to injuries in locomotive accidents.

The decedent, George Corson, worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad for about twenty-seven years as a machinist and welder, beginning in 1947. He performed locomotive repair by installing brakeshoes, and he performed maintenance on locomotive boilers by removing insulation. His last year of employment at the railroad was 1974. Several decades later, in 2005, Corson was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer associated with exposure to asbestos.
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After a jury returned a verdict in favor of the doctor in a medical malpractice case, an estate executor appealed on two questions of abuse of discretion: limitations on the scope of questions during the defendant’s deposition, and refusal of jury instructions tendered by the plaintiff. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s verdict in Ruble v. Thompson, finding that the court did not abuse its discretion on any of the points raised on appeal.

Larry Ruble filed suit against Dr. Lori Thompson as an individual and on behalf of the estate of his wife, Natasha Ruble. According to the Court of Appeals’ opinion, Dr. Thompson first saw Natasha during her first day of practice after completing her residency in September 1998. Natasha was fifteen years old at the time and sought treatment for abdominal pain. Dr. Thompson reportedly saw Natasha in about twenty appointments over the following forty-six months. A physician’s assistant working for Dr. Thompson requested a CT scan in July 2002, which revealed that Natasha had advanced liver cancer. The scan showed an eighteen-centimeter cancerous lesion, although CT scans and other diagnostic tools can detect lesions as small as one centimeter. Trial experts testified that Natasha had about a five percent chance of survival by the time she was diagnosed, and that her chances would have been as high as fifty percent had diagnosis occurred a year earlier.

Natasha died on April 30, 2004, having married Larry Ruble on March 15, 2003. Larry filed a proposed malpractice complaint against Dr. Thompson with the Indiana Department of Insurance and a state court lawsuit in July 2004. He alleged that Dr. Thompson negligently failed to follow accepted standards of care in her treatment of Natasha, resulting in her death.
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A Shelbyville man has submitted a tort claim to the Indiana Attorney General, indicating his intention to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the state’s Department of Child Services (DCS) over the death of his one year-old son. He alleges that DCS ignored warnings that the child’s mother and her boyfriend were abusing the child, and that the agency’s failure to intervene and protect the child contributed to his death. The man also notified the hospital that treated his son of his intent to file a medical negligence lawsuit.

According to Jerraco Noel, he reported the abuse of his son, Jayden, to DCS in July 2011. Jayden was treated in the emergency room of Major Hospital in Shelbyville on July 15, 2011 for injuries resulting from abuse by his mother and her boyfriend. DCS reportedly found Noel’s claims at the time “unsubstantiated.” Jayden died on January 18, 2012 from “multiple blunt-force traumatic injuries to the head.” Prosecutors have charged the mother and her boyfriend with neglect of a dependent causing death. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Noel claims that DCS “failed to conduct a reasonable investigation” after he reported his suspicions of abuse. He also alleges that the agency failed to consult with any of the medical professionals who treated Jayden, and that those medical professionals failed to report the injuries to DCS. He is demanding $700,000, the maximum amount of damages allowed by statute from DCS, for “loss of love and affection.”
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