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COA: Second amended complaint allowed

October 15, 2008

A former Steak 'n Shake employee appealed the trial court's dismissal of his claims of defamation and invasion of privacy against the company, which the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded today.

In William H. Hart v. Walter C. Webster and The Steak-n-Shake Co.,  No. 49A05-0802-CV-47, William Hart filed a complaint against Walter Webster and The Steak 'n Shake Co., claiming defamation and invasion of privacy against both parties as a result of Webster's investigation of allegations that Hart violated the company's gratuity policy and engaged in unethical relationships with vendors. Hart was cleared of any wrongdoing but claims Webster "maliciously communicated" to other employees, vendors, and people who did business with Steak 'n Shake that Hart had engaged in unethical conduct as vice president of purchasing.

He claimed as a result of the "embarrassment, humiliation, and severe emotional and physical distress" he suffered because of the investigation that he became disabled and couldn't work. Steak 'n Shake fired him as a result.

The defendants filed a joint motion to dismiss; Hart filed an amended complaint. The trial court dismissed Hart's amended complaint without prejudice and ordered him to file another complaint within 15 days. The trial court also denied his motion to reconsider the order of dismissal under Trial Rule 12(B)(6). Then, the court granted the defendant's joint motion to reconsider the ruling on a motion to dismiss under T.R. 12(B)(1) and dismissed Hart's complaint in its entirety, with prejudice. However, the court didn't specify whether it was referring to Hart's original complaint, his amended complaint, the second amended complaint he filed, or all three.

The trial court did properly dismiss Hart's original complaint and amended complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because his claims of suffering emotional and physical distress that made him unable to work fell under the Workers' Compensation Act, which must be ruled on by the Workers' Compensation Board, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

Although it is unclear if the trial court actually did dismiss the second amended complaint, the trial court erred in dismissing it because in it, Hart made no mention of any physical injury, disability, or impairment, so the Workers' Compensation Act wouldn't apply to the second amended complaint. In that one, Hart claimed damages to his personal and business reputation, humiliation, and emotional injuries.

Hart also wasn't precluded from filing his second amended complaint even though the trial court dismissed his previous ones with prejudice. The appellate court remanded to the trial court for further proceedings on Hart's second amended complaint, beginning with an opportunity for Webster and Steak 'n Shake to file a response, wrote the judge.

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