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COA: Judge could raise affirmative defense on behalf of pro se defendant

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A small-claims court may decide a case based upon the statute of limitations even if a defendant didn’t raise or mention it at trial but the issue was discussed during trial, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in an issue of first impression.

In Wolverine Mutual Insurance Co. v. Jeremy Oliver, No. 20A03-1003-SC-162, Wolverine Mutual Insurance Co. claimed Elkhart Superior Judge Olga Stickel erred in deciding its action against Jeremy Oliver based upon the statute of limitations when Oliver didn’t raise or argue that affirmative defense.

Oliver caused an accident with an insured of Wolverine. The insurer sued him in small-claims court to recover the amount it paid out as a result of the accident. Oliver represented himself. Judge Stickel brought up the fact the case was filed outside of the statute of limitations and allowed Wolverine to submit a memorandum regarding statue of limitations. The judge denied Wolverine’s claim finding it was time-barred by the applicable statute of limitations. She also denied the motion to correct error.

Other jurisdictions have held that trial courts may not sua sponte inject the defense of the statute of limitations where the defendant hasn’t pleaded or argued it, but the Court of Appeals found the opposite based on Indiana’s relaxed rules in the small-claims setting and the provision in Small Claims Rule 4(A) that places the statute of limitations at issue without the need for the defendant to raise it.

The judges also found the instant case to be different from Lechner v. Reutepohler, 545 N.E.2d 1144 (Ind. Ct. App. 1989). Lechner held that a small-claims defendant must litigate the issue of the statute of limitations at trial in order to preserve it for appeal. But in Lechner, the defendants argued the statute of limitations for the first time in a motion to correct error; in the instant case, the issue was raised at trial by the court.

“It seems clear that the primary rationale implicitly underpinning the holding in Lechner is that the failure to inject the issue at trial fatally compromised the plaintiff’s ability to defend against it at a later time. Such would not be an issue in the instant case,” wrote Judge Ezra Friedlander.

The court saw the notice of claim against Oliver had been filed more than two years after the date of the accident, brought it to the attention of Wolverine’s attorney, and gave the company the full opportunity to address the merits of the defense.

Although the panel didn’t want to go so far as to say it was incumbent upon a small-claims court to develop the statute of limitations issue on behalf of pro se litigants, it didn’t see any reason to justify forbidding a small-claims court from sua sponte soliciting argument on an affirmative defense that is explicitly deemed at issue by S.C.R. 4(A). The judges affirmed the small-claims court denial of the claim.
 

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