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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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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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