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High court: land seller not liable in death

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Addressing an issue of first impression today, the Indiana Supreme Court considered under what circumstances a vendor of land may be liable to a third party for harm resulting from the condition of trees on the property near a road.

The majority held that Fred Jackson, as the seller of his property to Ronald Smith through a two-year installment contract, didn't retain possession or control of routine maintenance of the property, so summary judgment in his favor by the trial court was correct.

In Christine R. Scheible, as mother of Travis David Scheible, deceased v. Fred Jackson and Ronald Smith, No. 03S01-0807-CV-390, Christine Scheible brought a wrongful death action against Jackson and Smith after her son Travis was killed while riding his bike. Travis's view of traffic was obstructed by a tree hanging low from the property Jackson sold to Smith, and he rode into the street and was struck by a car.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in favor of Jackson, holding there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Jackson controlled the property after the sale.

Chief Justice Randal T. Shepard and Justices Theodore Boehm and Frank Sullivan affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Jackson, ruling that ownership of the property was transferred to Smith upon execution of the land-sale contract and he had no duty at the time of the accident to maintain the tree as provided by a city ordinance.

Scheible argued Jackson still could be held liable because he acted like a landowner after the sale, citing Smith's need to consult with Jackson before making changes to the property and that Jackson alone held the casualty and liability insurance for the property.

Justice Boehm, writing for the majority, determined that the fact Smith needed permission from Jackson before making changes reflects Jackson wanted to protect his security interest in the property. The same argument goes for the insurance: even though Smith was never added as an insured, Jackson's insurance policy on the property is consistent with his desire to protect his financial investment and doesn't show control, wrote Justice Boehm.

"In sum, the contract called for possession to transfer to Smith at closing. None of the evidence designated is inconsistent with that provision. As a matter of law, liability under section 343, the only provision addressed by the parties, lies with Smith as the possessor of the land," he wrote.

The majority also held the Columbus, Ind., ordinance requiring property owners to trim trees to certain aspects didn't apply to Jackson. Indiana law has long been that when parties enter into a land-sale contract, all incidents of ownership accrue to the vendee, wrote the justice.

Justice Robert Rucker dissented in a separate opinion in which Justice Brent Dickson concurred, writing summary judgment in favor of Jackson was inappropriate. There is an issue of whether or not Jackson exercised some degree of control over the property, and the justices would affirm the Court of Appeals decision.

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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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