By James O. Giffin
Defending against negligence claims can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. This is particularly true if the claims have to be defended through trial. By that time, the parties will have completed written discovery, taken depositions, possibly retained expert witnesses, likely attempted mediation, and perhaps engaged in other activities. All of this takes time and money. Thus, it behooves clients for their attorneys to identify opportunities to expedite the resolution of such cases by persuading courts to dispose of them via summary judgment. Although the standards for such efforts are generally deferential to plaintiffs, Indiana courts have provided openings which defendants can utilize to their advantage in the right circumstances.
Some of these openings are relatively narrow and factually dependent. An example of this is Pfenning v. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392 (Ind. 2011). In Pfenning, a volunteer at a golf tournament was driving a cart when she was struck and injured by a golfer’s errant shot. The volunteer sued the golfer, the golf course owner, the person who brought her to the tournament, and one of the event’s sponsors. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the golf course owner, who was represented by Riley Bennett Egloff LLP. The Court held, for the first time, that if a sports participant’s conduct is within the range of ordinary behavior for the activity, then it is reasonable as a matter of law and does not constitute a breach of duty. It is critical to note the Court stated this finding was proper “as a matter of law.” In very few other contexts is a court allowed to find an action does or does not breach a legal duty. Such determinations are generally factual in nature and, thus, reserved for a jury. Pfenning, on the other hand, allows a judge to adjudicate an essential element of the claim early on instead of allowing it to proceed to a jury trial. If utilized properly, this can save clients a great deal of time and money.
Indiana courts have also provided broader opportunities for summary dispositions in negligence claims. As an example, for the past twenty-five years Indiana courts have determined whether or not one party owes a legal duty to another party under the framework set forth by Webb v. Jarvis, 575 N.E.2d 992 (Ind. 1991). This involved an analysis of three factors: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the reasonability probability of harm to the person injured; and (3) public policy concerns. However, in October 2016, the Indiana Supreme Court handed down Goodwin v. Yeakle’s Sports Bar & Grill, Inc., 62 N.E.3d 384 (Ind. 2016), a decision which altered how Indiana courts are to analyze whether a legal duty exists. If no legal duty exists, a defendant may be entitled to summary judgment.
Goodwin held the foreseeability of an injury is a necessary component of a legal duty. Before a court may impose a legal duty on a defendant, it must analyze the general type of plaintiff and harm involved to determine whether the injury was foreseeable. The Court emphasized that “because almost any outcome is possible and can be foreseen, the mere fact that a particular outcome is ‘sufficiently likely’ is not enough to give rise to a duty.” To impose a legal duty, the court must instead conclude “there is some probability or likelihood of harm that is serious enough to induce a reasonable person to take precautions to avoid it.” In applying this new standard, the Indiana Supreme Court found that a shooting inside a neighborhood bar was not foreseeable as a matter of law, thus no legal duty attached. This was because “in the broadest sense, all crimes anywhere are ‘foreseeable’ . . . [and] to impose a blanket duty on proprietors to afford protection to their patrons . . . would abandon the notion of liability based on negligence and enter the realm of strict liability in tort, which ‘assumes no negligence of the actor, but chooses to impose liability anyway.’” Id. (citation omitted).
Other courts have started citing and applying Goodwin. In Polet v. ESG Sec., Inc., 66 N.E.3d 972 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016), the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of a security company, finding it did not owe a legal duty to patrons injured in a stage collapse. The Court characterized the plaintiff as a patron of an outdoor concert and the type of harm as the likelihood of a stage collapse due to high wind. Based on this, the Court found the accident was not reasonably foreseeable to the security company as a matter of law.
In Rogers v. Martin, 63 N.E.3d 316 (Ind. 2016), the Indiana Supreme Court held, in relevant part, that a host did not owe a legal duty to protect a guest from being harmed during a fight between others which occurred on the premises. The Court found that, although house parties “often set the stage for raucous behavior,” such fights are not routine and resultant injuries to by-standing guests are not reasonably foreseeable. Summary judgment was not appropriate for other reasons, but the Court’s analysis on this issue was consistent with Goodwin.
Most recently, in Neal v. IAB Financial Bank, --- N.E.3d ---- 2017 WL 444034 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), the Indiana Court of Appeals found a bank did not owe a duty to a motorist subsequently injured by an intoxicated driver who had changed a flat tire at that bank and with the help of the bank’s employees. The Court found the bank could not reasonably foresee that an intoxicated driver would stop at its building to seek aid or that such a driver would later cause an accident in which another would be injured.
Motions for summary judgment have myriad other applications. For example, they can narrow the issues in dispute or be used as leverage for settlement. But each case is different. Not all are factually or legally situated for summary dispositions under these, or other, precedents. But, for those which are, this approach can yield substantial savings in litigation costs and result in more prompt resolutions.
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