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Justices affirm new trial in estate awarded $41,400 in hotel killing

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A correction and update has been made to this story.

The Indiana Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a lower court order for a new trial in a case involving a  $41,400 award made to the estate of a man who was killed at a Speedway hotel by a former employee.

“We find the trial court was well within its discretion in determining that ‘a contrary result should have been reached in the minds of reasonable men,’” Justice Robert Rucker wrote for the justices in affirming a new trial in Mary Elizabeth Santelli, as Administrator of the Estate of James F. Santelli v. Abu M. Rahmatullah, Individually and d/b/a Super 8 Motel.

The jury determined 97 percent of the liability for damages lies with Joseph Pryor, the man who murdered James Santelli while he was a guest at the Super 8 Motel in Speedway. The jury apportioned 1 percent liability to Santelli and 2 percent to hotel owner Abu M. Rahmatullah, which resulted in the $41,400 award – 2 percent of the $2.07 million damages award – to the estate.

Justices, meanwhile, affirmed the allocation of fault under the Indiana Comparative Fault Act as proper. In this negligence case, the court addressed the application of the Act to the issue of fault allocation in a specific context: that in which a premises owner has a duty to protect a business invitee from the foreseeable criminal act of a third party.

Rucker wrote for the court that it had determined that “the (Comparative Fault) Act abrogates the old rule of joint and several liability in suits to which the Act applies,” citing Ind. Dept. of Ins. v. Everhart, 960 N.E.2d 129, 138 (Ind. 2012).

“We determined that the elimination of joint and several liability was a reasonable trade-off for the benefits plaintiffs receive under the Act, namely: the removal of the contributory negligence bar to recovery,” Rucker wrote.

“It would be incongruous to permit Rahmatullah to be held jointly liable for damages caused by Pryor but not to permit Rahmatullah to seek contribution from Pryor. Our view on this issue is consistent with that of other states whose legislatures, like the Indiana Legislature, have included intentional acts in the comparative fault analysis,” Rucker wrote.

The Supreme Court ruling comes after a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the Marion Superior Court and remanded for a new trial. Attorneys said the case would be a key decision regarding premises liability.

“The Indiana legislature has the authority to expressly permit joint and several liability in circumstances such as these, but as of yet it has not done so,” Rucker wrote. “In allocating fault among multiple actors, a jury may consider ‘the relative degree of causation attributable among the responsible actors.’ Our statutory scheme thus allows a diverse array of factors to be considered in the allocation of comparative fault.”
 

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