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Justices answer certified question on fault

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After revising a certified question received from the federal court, Indiana Supreme Court justices answered the question in the affirmative.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana sent the following question for the justices to answer: “Whether, in a crashworthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Products Liability Act, the finder of fact shall apportion fault to the person suffering physical harm when that alleged fault relates to the cause of the underlying accident.”

The question comes from a case involving a federal lawsuit filed by Nicholas Green against Ford Motor Co. under the Indiana Product Liability Act. Green claims Ford was negligent in its design of the vehicle’s restraint system. While he was driving, Green left the road, hit a guardrail, rolled the car, and the resulting injuries left him a quadriplegic. He’s seeking to excluded any evidence of his alleged contributory negligence on the grounds that anything he did to make the car leave the road isn’t relevant to whether Ford’s negligent design caused him to suffer injuries he wouldn’t have otherwise suffered.

In Nicholas Green v. Ford Motor Company, No. 94S00-1007-CQ-348, the justices examined the “Crashworthiness Doctrine” explained in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals case, Larsen v. General Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495, 502 (8th Cir. 1968), as well as caselaw from Indiana on the theory of crashworthiness presented in Larsen. Previous rulings have held that claims for enhanced injuries based on alleged uncrashworthiness have been viewed as separate and distinct from the circumstances relating to the initial collision or event, wrote Justice Brent Dickson.

The justices acknowledged the logical appeal to extend this analysis to view any negligence of a claimant in causing the initial collision as irrelevant in determining liability for the “second collision,” but two things lead to a different conclusion, he wrote.

“First, most of the early crashworthiness decisions arose under common law or statutory product liability law that imposed strict liability for which a plaintiff's contributory negligence was not available as a defense, making it irrelevant in those cases to consider a plaintiff's contributory negligence,” he wrote. “Second, and more important, product liability claims in Indiana are governed by the Indiana Product Liability Act, which, since 1995, has expressly required liability to be determined in accordance with the principles of comparative fault. Ind. Code § 34-20-8-1. We find the statutory language to be significant in resolving the question.”

The justices concluded that in a crashworthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Product Liability Act, it is the function of the fact-finder to consider and evaluate the conduct of all relevant actors who allegedly caused or contributed to cause the harm for which a plaintiff seeks damages. From the evidence, the jury then must determine whether such conduct satisfies the requirement of proximate cause, he wrote. A fact-finder may allocate as comparative fault only such fault that it finds to have been a proximate cause of the claimed injuries.

The justices revised the certified question to be: “Whether, in a crashworthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Products Liability Act, the finder of fact shall apportion fault to the person suffering physical harm when that alleged fault is a proximate cause of the harm for which damages are being sought.”

They unanimously answered this revised question in the affirmative.

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