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No summary judgment in mailbox case

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The owners of a mailbox struck by a woman's car that left the road inexplicably aren't entitled to summary judgment on the woman's negligence claim, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed today.

There are many genuine issues of material fact in the case James and Erica Sparks v. Barbara and Chester White, No. 88A01-0804-CV-172, which makes the denial of the Sparkses' motion for summary judgment by the trial court correct, the appellate court ruled.

For some unknown reason, Barbara White's car crossed the center line in front of the Sparkses' house, left the road, and struck the Sparkses' brick mailbox support, which was three feet from the road. White was injured and she and her husband, Chester, filed a negligence suit claiming the Sparkses maintained "an unreasonably dangerous mailbox on their property."

The Sparkses contend they are entitled to summary judgment as to the duty and proximate cause elements in the tort of negligence. Citing Ousley v. Board of Commissioners of Fulton County, 734 N.E.2d 290, 293 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000), the Court of Appeals found a genuine issue of material fact in relationship between the distance of the mailbox from the road and whether the accident and injury could have been foreseen.

The location of the mailbox is to ease delivery of the Sparkses' mail, but there is evidence showing the mailbox is bigger and stronger than it needs to be, and may have created an unreasonable risk of harm to motorists, wrote Judge Patricia Riley. The appellate court also cited Goldsberry v. Grubbs, 672 N.E.2d 475 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996), which found it is foreseeable that motorists may leave the traveled portion of the road and strike utility poles along that route. As such, summary judgment wouldn't be appropriate to grant on the issue of duty, wrote the judge in the instant case.

There are also genuine issues of material fact regarding proximate cause, such as whether the Sparkses foresaw or should have foreseen Barbara would have left the road and hit their mailbox or that she would have been injured for hitting the mailbox.

These are questions for a jury to answer, wrote Judge Riley, and if a jury finds Barbara was more than 50 percent at fault for the injuries, the Whites won't be able to recover any damages under Indiana's comparative fault regime.

The Court of Appeals, finding this is not one of the rare negligence cases in which to grant summary judgment, remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

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