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Justices draw bright line on children's fault

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Indiana law recognizes a rebuttable presumption that children ages 7 to 14 aren't capable of contributory negligence, the state's Supreme Court has confirmed.

In a unanimous ruling Monday in Clay City Consolidated School Corp. v. Ronna Timberman and John Pipes II,, No. 11S04-0904-CV-134, the justices affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the parents of a 13-year-old boy who died during basketball practice in 2003.

Kodi Pipes blacked out during a basketball practice. He wasn't yet cleared to practice without restrictions by his doctor when he participated later that week in a running drill and collapsed and died. Pipes' mother, Ronna Timberman, said she told his coach he could do walkthroughs at practice until cleared but couldn't participate in strenuous activity.

Timberman and Kodi's father, John Pipes, filed a complaint against Clay City Schools, alleging the school was negligent under Indiana's Child Wrongful Death statute. The jury ruled in favor of the parents and awarded them $300,000.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and ordered a new trial because it found the trial court committed reversible error when it gave an instruction that Indiana law recognizes a rebuttable presumption for 7- to 14-year-olds.

Applying the Restatement (Second) of Torts, Section 283A, and caselaw including Borttorff v. S. Constr. Co., 184 Ind. 221, 110 N.E. 977 (1916), and Mangold ex rel. Mangold v. Ind. Department of Natural Resources, 756 N.E.2d 970 (Ind. 2001), the justices confirmed that Indiana law does recognize a rebuttable presumption that children ages 7 to 14 are incapable of contributory negligence.

The high court's ruling is consistent with the Borttorff precedent and accords with the unquestioned obligation that the alleged tortfeasor bears of proving contributory negligence, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan. Based on the instant ruling and Evidence Rule 301, the justices determined the trial court's final instruction No. 20, which stated the law recognized the rebuttable presumption, was a correct statement of law.

The Supreme Court also ruled that Clay City waived its argument that Kodi's parents were contributorily negligent; that the trial court didn't err when it instructed the jury that it "may" find for the school corporation if it found any negligence on the part of Kodi; that the trial court didn't commit reversible error when instructing the jury on proximate cause in Final Instructions Nos. 19, 21, and 25; and that the cumulative effect of the trial court's instructions doesn't entitle Clay City to a new trial.

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