ILNews

High court affirms summary judgment for bank

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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A bank that opened an account for a man who used it to fraudulently deposit checks wasn't required under Indiana Code to exercise ordinary care when opening the account, ruled the Indiana Supreme Court.

At issue in Auto-Owners Insurance Company v. Bank One, et al., No. 49S04-0701-CV-27 is whether Bank One violated Section 405 of the Indiana Uniform Commercial Code by not exercising ordinary care when it allowed Kenneth B. Wulf to open a fraudulent account.

Wulf was a resident adjustor for Auto-Owners and worked for the company for 10 years. He handled files for each case of subrogation and salvage claims and it was his responsibility to forward any checks the company received for those claims to the clerical staff to send to the company's headquarters.

In 1991, Wulf opened an account at Bank One in the name of "Auto-Owners, Kenneth B. Wulf" and the bank did not request any documents to confirm he was allowed to open and use an account in Auto-Owners' name. Over the course of eight years, he deposited more than half a million dollars into that account. While he was on vacation, Auto-Owners discovered what he had been up to.

Auto-Owners brought a suit against Bank One, arguing the bank failed to exercise ordinary care when it opened the account and that failure substantially contributed to the company's losses. It also argued Bank One was liable for losses up to the moment of discovery, regardless of any statute of limitations.

The trial court granted Bank One's motion for summary judgment and denied Auto-Owners' motion for partial summary judgment on the statute of limitations issue only. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

In today's ruling authored by Justice Frank Sullivan, the majority affirmed the Court of Appeals decision. The case and the court's decision rested upon Indiana's Uniform Commercial Code, which allows a person bearing a loss because of fraudulent activity to recover from the person failing to exercise ordinary care to prevent the loss.

Section 405 does not mention a bank's responsibilities when opening an account and only requires ordinary care from a bank in the "paying" or "taking" of an instrument, wrote Justice Sullivan. In fact, in the absence of the bank's negligence, the section shifts the responsibility of monitoring employees' activities onto the employer. The employer is in a better position to supervise its employees than the bank, he wrote.

As to the second issue raised on appeal, even if Bank One didn't demonstrate ordinary care by accepting the checks, Auto-Owners still has to show that lack of ordinary care substantially contributed to its losses. To determine whether the conduct has substantially contributed to a loss, the high court looked to I.C. 26-1-3.1-406, to view Bank One's conduct in its entirety. Other than the lack of procedure used in opening the account in 1991, Bank One followed required protocol in depositing Wulf's checks. Even if opening the account was a contributing factor to Auto-Owners' loss, the Supreme Court agrees with the lower courts that the bank's conduct in its entirety does not meet the "substantially contributed" test (Thompson Maple Products v. Citizens National Bank of Corry, 234 A.2d 32 (Pa.Super.Ct.1967)).

Justice Theodore Boehm, in a separate opinion in which Justice Brent Dickson concurred, agreed that the statute of limitations barred much of Auto-Owners' claims but did not agree Bank One is entitled to summary judgment because he believes there are issues of fact not resolvable on summary judgment.
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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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