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Court rules on liability in nursing home accident

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The Indiana Court of Appeals today turned to an issue that has been dealt with few times in state court history:

What happens when a nursing home facility brings a local string band to play for the residents, and one of those volunteers arrives on the property and drives into the building before the performance, jumping a curb and striking a nursing home resident on the front porch before crashing into the building itself?

An answer comes today in Albert Gilbert, an incapacitated adult, by his guardians Viola Parsley, et al. v. Loogootee Realty LLC d/b/a Loogootee Nursing Center, No. 29A02-0912-CV-1188, in which the appeals panel affirmed a judgment from Hamilton Superior Judge Daniel Pfleging.

The Hamilton Superior case involves the 24-hour Loogootee Nursing Center that often encourages volunteer groups and individuals to visit the center and provide entertainment. One of those groups is the local string band known as the Charles Bruner Band, in which Carroll Ledgerwood was a singer and bass player for several years at the time of this incident in April 2007. Scheduled to perform at the nursing center, Ledgerwood drove to the facility to unload his equipment but his foot slipped off the brake and hit the accelerator when backing into a parking space. That led to his car traveling across the front porch and hitting a moderately mentally disabled Loogootee resident, Albert Gilbert, who was sitting on a front porch swing. The car ultimately crashed through the building’s wall, and as a result of the accident Gilbert suffered injuries that rendered him unable to walk and dress himself for several months. The man’s guardians filed a complaint for damages on his behalf, suing both Ledgerwood who was driving and Loogootee for not adequately protecting Gilbert from one of its gratuitous servants.

After various motions and court hearings, Judge Pfleging late last year determined that Ledgerwood fit the definition of a “gratuitous servant” as defined by a 1983 Indiana Court of Appeals decision, but that the driver wasn’t acting in that capacity when behind the wheel of his own vehicle and so the nursing facility wasn’t vicariously liable. The trial judge also found Loogootee didn’t owe Gilbert a duty because the accident wasn’t reasonably foreseeable.

In today’s 16-page decision, Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote for a unanimous panel that this issue hasn’t been dealt with inside the state.

“We find scant cases in Indiana that have discussed the doctrine of gratuitous servant. Although Gilbert cites numerous cases in support of his contention that the doctrine applies here, the only case cited that specifically discusses this principle is Trinity Lutheran Church Inc. of Evansville v. Miller, 451 N.E. 2d 1099, (Ind. Ct. App. 1983), (which) appears to be the first case in Indiana to recognize the doctrine and one of only two publicized cases that mentions it.”

Basically, the doctrine is a form of master-servant or principal-servant relationship, giving rise to liability if there’s no direct evidence of a traditional employment agreement between the two parties. Based on Trinity, the test to determine whether that relationship exists depends on the element of control and the facts of the case.

Finding that Loogootee exercised no control over the band or Ledgerwood in this situation, the appellate court found that the driver wasn’t a gratuitous servant at the time he drove into the nursing home and injured Gilbert.

The appeals judges turned to other employer-liability issues and again found that the nursing home wasn’t liable for what happened in this case, and that a common-carrier exception in another 1989 case didn’t apply here. That case was Stropes by Taylor v. Heritage House Childrens Ctr. of Shelbyville Inc., 547 N.E.2d 244 (Ind. 1989), and the appellate panel now analyzed it to determine the best interpretation of Heritage is that it’s understood to address liability of an employer for an employee’s conduct.

The panel didn’t agree with Gilbert on the other liability aspects of the appeal, but did note that it wasn’t deciding more than whether Ledgerwood was a gratuitous servant at the time of the injury-producing event.

“We can conceive of many foreseeable dangers inherent in living in a nursing facility such as Loogootee and from which Loogootee had a duty to protect its residents,” Judge Friedlander wrote. “We cannot agree, however, that a person driving a vehicle across the front porch and through the wall of the facility was one of them.”
 

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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