Federal Court Discusses Why a Plaintiff’s Failure to Wear Safety Equipment Is Generally Inadmissible in Recent Indiana Personal Injury Case

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.

On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that the lower court erred when it allowed the jury to consider the plaintiff’s decision not to wear a hardhat as evidence of his own negligence. The court agreed. The court held that, under the Indiana Comparative Fault Act, a plaintiff’s own actions could be used to reduce, or even eliminate, his right to recover for his injuries. However, this rule “applies only to a plaintiff’s conduct before an accident or initial injury.”

Here, the court pointed out that the defendant did not argue that had the plaintiff worn the hard hat, his injury would not have occurred, or that his injuries would have been less serious. Instead, the defendant was arguing that the plaintiff was negligent in bringing about his injuries and that the plaintiff’s negligence precluded him from recovery. The court rejected the defendant’s argument, reasoning that the plaintiff’s decision not to wear a hardhat neither “caused or contributed to” the accident. Thus, the appellate court held that using such evidence to prevent the plaintiff from recovering for his injuries was in error.

Have You Been Injured on Another’s Property?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured while on another’s property, you may be entitled to monetary compensation through an Indiana premises liability lawsuit. At Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse, we represent accident victims and their loved ones in claims against those who are responsible for their injuries. We confidently handle Indiana personal injury and wrongful death cases across the state in both state and federal courts. To learn how we can help you pursue a claim for compensation for the injuries you have sustained, call 888-532-7766 to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation today. Calling is free, and we will not bill you for our services unless we are able to help you recover fair compensation for your injuries.