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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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  1. You can put your photos anywhere you like... When someone steals it they know it doesn't belong to them. And, a man getting a divorce is automatically not a nice guy...? That's ridiculous. Since when is need of money a conflict of interest? That would mean that no one should have a job unless they are already financially solvent without a job... A photographer is also under no obligation to use a watermark (again, people know when a photo doesn't belong to them) or provide contact information. Hey, he didn't make it easy for me to pay him so I'll just take it! Well heck, might as well walk out of the grocery store with a cart full of food because the lines are too long and you don't find that convenient. "Only in Indiana." Oh, now you're passing judgement on an entire state... What state do you live in? I need to characterize everyone in your state as ignorant and opinionated. And the final bit of ignorance; assuming a photo anyone would want is lucky and then how much does your camera have to cost to make it a good photo, in your obviously relevant opinion?

  2. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood has stated in “The Rule of Law in Times of Stress” (2003), “that neither laws nor the procedures used to create or implement them should be secret; and . . . the laws must not be arbitrary.” According to the American Bar Association, Wood’s quote drives home this point: The rule of law also requires that people can expect predictable results from the legal system; this is what Judge Wood implies when she says that “the laws must not be arbitrary.” Predictable results mean that people who act in the same way can expect the law to treat them in the same way. If similar actions do not produce similar legal outcomes, people cannot use the law to guide their actions, and a “rule of law” does not exist.

  3. Linda, I sure hope you are not seeking a law license, for such eighteenth century sentiments could result in your denial in some jurisdictions minting attorneys for our tolerant and inclusive profession.

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