ILNews

Appellate court splits on liability of city

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The Indiana Court of Appeals split today in deciding whether the city of South Bend should have known putting heavy machinery on an unstable sidewalk would create an unreasonable risk of harm to a brick restorer.

At issue in City of South Bend v. Charles Dollahan, No. 46A03-0901-CV-17, was whether the city was liable for Charles Dollahan's loss. Dollahan, a brick restorer, needed to repair bricks approximately 30 feet above the ground. His company got a permit to allow a boom lift to be placed on the city sidewalk in front of the building. Dollahan saw the sidewalks were in questionable condition, but figured the sidewalk was safe after he performed stress tests with the boom lift on the sidewalk. After he got in the lift and was in the air, the sidewalk collapsed, sinking the lift into a fissure beneath the sidewalk and injuring Dollahan.

An investigation revealed base material under the sidewalk had eroded and steel reinforcement I-beams had been inserted into the sidewalk, an indication of past problems with the sidewalk.

Dollahan sued the city, alleging it was negligent in issuing the permit and in its failure to warn him about latent defects in the sidewalk under the theory of premises liability. He called on a city engineer to testify, who said the reinforcement indicated there was a void before under the sidewalk and that it likely would have collapsed had any heavy machinery been placed on it. The trial court awarded Dollahan more than $300,000.

The majority agreed that the city failed to maintain its property in a safe condition and to warn of any latent defects in the sidewalk where the lift was to be placed. The city engineer's testimony supported the trial court's conclusion that the city knew or should have known putting the lift on the sidewalk, given the history of the sidewalk's instability, would create an unreasonable risk of harm to Dollahan, and that the city breached its duty to exercise reasonable care when it failed to maintain the sidewalk in a reasonably safe condition. The finding and judgment that the city was liable based upon the theory of premises liability is well supported, wrote Judge Carr Darden.

Judge Margret Robb dissented on this issue, writing the city knew there had been a void under the sidewalk and took steps to reinforce the sidewalk. There was no evidence showing the steel beams and backfill were an insufficient means of reinforcement.

"There is no evidence suggesting the City knew when it issued this permit the sidewalk was no longer adequately reinforced," she wrote. "In short, I believe the evidence shows the City corrected the defect in the sidewalk by placement of the steel beams and did not know and had no reason to know the defect had recurred."

The appellate court also found the trial court erred when it ruled the city had waived the defense of governmental immunity but that the error was harmless.

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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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