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Justices uphold order criminal defendant answer civil complaint

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The Indiana Supreme Court Wednesday found a Lake Superior judge did not abuse her discretion in ordering a man criminally charged for the hit-and-run death of a woman to respond to her estate’s wrongful death complaint filed against him.

Britney Meux was jogging with co-workers when she was hit by a car on March 6, 2012. The driver, allegedly Jason R. Cozmanoff, fled the scene. Meux died from her injuries and Cozmanoff was charged with one count of Class C felony reckless homicide and other charges. A few weeks later, Meux’s estate sued him for wrongful death. The discovery process began April 27 in the civil suit.

Coxmanoff moved to stay the entire civil proceeding until his criminal case concluded. He was concerned that if he asserted the Fifth Amendment it would be used against him before the civil jury; if he were to respond to discovery, that information could be used against him during his criminal trial.

The estate countered that the criminal proceeding could drag on beyond the two-year statute of limitations for identifying other potential tortfeasors who must be joined to the suit.

Lake Superior Judge Diane Kavadias Schneider granted a limited stay of discovery regarding only Cozmanoff and ordered him to answer the complaint within 30 days.

In Joseph D. Hardiman and Jaketa L. Patterson, as Co-Administrators of the Estate of Britney R. Meux, Deceased v. Jason R. Cozmanoff, 45S03-1309-CT-619, the justices affirmed Schneider’s decision, noting that their ruling doesn’t mean the trial court was constitutionally required to impose the stay, but that it did not abuse its discretion by doing so.

They found the civil court was appropriately protecting its own calendar and judicial resources by ordering the case to continue. And, Justice Mark Massa pointed out that the estate would have at least 45 days to join any nonparty as a defendant because Indiana law requires Cozmanoff plead any nonparty defense at least 45 days before the statute of limitations expires.

“Non-parties do have an interest in being promptly discovered and joined in the action, but that interest can still be served under this limited stay. Although the Estate may not be able to learn the identity of those nonparties by deposing Cozmanoff, it is still free to do so by conducting other discovery, or by investigating outside the context of formal discovery. Thus, the stay does not entirely prevent the Estate from pursuing its case,” Massa wrote.

The fact that both cases concern identical issues weighs strongly in favor of this limited stay, as the cases turn on the same three issues: whether Cozmanoff hit Meux with his car, whether he was reckless when he did so, and whether his action caused her death.

The justices also found Kavadias Schneider’s decision to stay discovery against Cozmanoff but still require him to file an answer is not unprecedented.

The case is remanded for further proceedings.  

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