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Decomposition cleanup subject to lien law

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A decomposing body left in a Johnson County home has led the Indiana Court of Appeals to analyze the state mechanic's lien statute.

In a decision today in Midwest Biohazard Services LLC v. Hugh H. Rodgers and The Hugh C. Rodgers Trust, No. 41A05-0805-CV-290, a three-judge panel unanimously held that the lien statute's use of the word "repairs" should encompass work done by a biohazard cleanup company in 2007.

The elder Rodgers died sometime in 2007 at his Johnson County home, but his body wasn't discovered for several days. The decomposition resulted in fluids seeping from the body and into the carpet, subflooring, into the basement, and causing contaminants to be absorbed throughout the house. His son, Hugh Rodgers, contacted Midwest Biohazard and in September 2007 arranged a $13,500 contract to remove and dispose of the biohazard resulting from the decomposed body. Within a month, Rodgers notified the company he didn't intend to pay more than a deposit; the company eventually sued to foreclose on a mechanic's lien. The trial court dismissed Biohazard's claim to foreclose on the lien in April 2008.

On appeal, Biohazard argued that the trial court erred because the services it provided fell within the scope of the mechanic's lien statute as "repairs." Rodgers responded by arguing those services were merely cleaning services and the statute shouldn't apply.

"The word 'repair' has not been defined in the mechanic's lien statute," the Court of Appeals wrote, turning to dictionary definitions and noting that one definition is that the word means to "restore to a sound healthy state."

"The decontamination of the house performed by Biohazard clearly meets this latter definition of 'repair,' and we see no reason why the plain, ordinary, and usual meaning of repair would exclude restoring property 'to a sound healthy state,' as well as restoring by 'replacing a part or putting together what is torn or broken.'"

Looking at the purpose of the mechanic's lien statute, the court cited Moore-Mansfield Construction Co. v. Indianapolis, New Castle & Toledo Railway Co., 101 N.E. 296, 302 (1913), in which Indiana's justices held the law focused largely on whether the activities performed would increase a property's value.

"It takes no stretch of the imagination to recognize that a buyer would be willing to pay more for a house that was free from biohazard contaminants than she would be willing to pay for the same house in a contaminated state," Judge Patricia Riley wrote. "As such, the services allegedly performed ... undoubtedly increased the value of the house."

The court ruled the trial court erred in dismissing the claim and that an error existed in transferring venue from Johnson County to Jackson County, where the younger Rodgers lived and maintained the father's trust. The case has been reversed and remanded to Johnson Superior Judge Kim Van Valer.

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