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Defendants not negligent in father's suicide, murder of daughter

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A father’s decision to crash a plane his daughter was in – killing them both – superseded any negligence that may be attributed to his flight instructor or other defendants in a wrongful death action, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday.

Beth Ann Johnson, Eric Johnson’s ex-wife and mother of their daughter Emily, sued the Lawrence County Board of Aviation, Eric’s flight instructor Tony Newbold, and the Lawrence County commissioners for damages for Emily’s wrongful death. Eric was supposed to take Emily to school, but instead, brought her to Grissom Airport in Lawrence County and flew the plane the two were in into Beth’s mother’s home.

Prior to the crash, Eric cursed at Beth on the phone and told her he’d see her and her boyfriend in hell.

Eric was a student of Newbold and had not had enough training to fly solo with a passenger. No one at the airport thought anything of seeing Eric there, and they did not see Emily in the plane.

The Lawrence Circuit Court granted summary judgment for all the defendants based on Eric’s intentional act of flying the plane into the home. Beth argued that the evidence didn’t establish that it was a murder/suicide and that it could have been an accident. She also claimed the trial court erred in determining that the misuse of an aircraft wasn’t a foreseeable consequence of the airport’s non-existent security procedures.  

The trial court was correct in ruling in favor of the defendants, the judges held, because the evidence shows that Eric intended to crash the plane and his criminal acts triggered the intervening, superseding cause doctrine and broke the causal chain between the aviation board’s alleged negligence and Emily’s death. None of the actions or inaction of the defendants could be considered proximate cause of the child’s death as a matter of law, wrote Judge John Baker in Beth Ann Johnson, Mother of: Emily Johnson, Deceased Minor Child v. Lance Jacobs, Steven J. Cummins, Stacy Cummings, Lawrence County Board of Aviation Commissioners, Tony Newbold, Lawrence County Commissioners, No. 47A01-1102-CT-35.

Also, nothing in the record suggests that the defendants should have foreseen that Eric would use the rented airplane to commit murder and suicide because of a purported violation of a duty to properly secure the airplane. He was on the calendar that day for a scheduled flying lesson, no one saw Emily at the airport or on the plane, and he didn’t act out of the ordinary that day.
 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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