The 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.
Robert Jr. and his wife appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 unpublished opinion, with each judge drafting their own opinion, the court overturned the trial court’s summary judgment. Robert Sr., the court found, had admitted during discovery that his son was not “in or upon” the vehicle at the time the accident occurred, so the Guest Statute did not apply. The concurring opinion held that the father’s admission was not necessary, as the “in or upon” language of the statute is not ambiguous, and precedent cases had already held that a person outside a vehicle is not “in or upon” it. The dissenting judge drew a distinction between the father’s factual admission during discovery and the precise legal meaning of “in or upon,” finding that summary judgment was proper.
The Indiana Supreme Court issued a 3-2 decision on July 23, 2012 upholding the appeals court’s reversal of the trial court. This means that Robert Jr.’s lawsuit against Robert Sr. may proceed. The court’s opinion noted that, in addition to the “in or upon” language of the statute, the statute applies when injuries occur “while the [close family member] or hitchhiker was being transported” (emphasis in original). The court found this to be unambiguous, holding that the Guest Statute applied to passengers, but not to people, like Robert Jr., who had fully exited the vehicle.
At Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse, we help the victims of automobile accidents and their families obtain compensation for their damages. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our lawyers, contact us today online or at (888) 532-7766.