COA reverses summary judgment in personal injury claim, abandons volunteer doctrine

A negligence case involving a Terre Haute HVAC business and a man injured while helping move a furnace will move forward now that the Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed summary judgment in favor of the company.

Timothy Miller, the owner and sole employee of Air Sorce-1, delivered a new furnace to Kelly Brannen’s home. Nick Hunckler lived with Brannen at the time and was home when the furnace arrived. Miller asked Hunckler to help him move the furnace to the basement, and he agreed. Huckler was at the top of the stairs and when he attempted to get a better grip on the furnace, sliced his hands on metal edges. His injuries required several surgeries and left him with continued impaired use of his left hand.

Hunckler sued Miller and Air Sorce-1 for negligence, and the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. It determined that Hunckler was a volunteer and applied the volunteer duty of care as stated in Thompson v. Owen, 141 Ind. App. 190, 218 N.E.2d 351 (Ind. Ct. App. 1966).

In Nick Hunckler v. Air Sorce-1, Inc., Timothy Miller and Kelly A. Brannen, 84A01-1405-CT-217, Hunckler argued that Thompson does not apply to him because the case at bar is not a premises liability case, as was Thompson. That case involved a man injured while helping a neighbor start her father’s lawnmower on her property. Judges John Baker and James Kirsch – the majority in this case – questioned whether even Thompson is binding precedent as it was decided by a split panel of the COA at a time when the panel was made up of four judges. But, they decided to adopt an approach used by Michigan that abandoned the volunteer doctrine and returned this area of the law to traditional agency and tort principles.

“We will continue to rely on traditional tort and agency principles and, to the extent it was ever applied, abandon the volunteer doctrine. Therefore, it follows that ordinary negligence principles apply in the instant case. We find that there are genuine issues of material fact as to duty, causation, breach, and damages,” Baker wrote.

Judge Margret Robb agreed with her colleagues that summary judgment should be reversed, but wrote separately to address that the appeals court didn’t even need to discuss Thompson nor abandon the volunteer doctrine it espoused. It may not be binding precedent and the situation decided by Thompson is not the same situation as in Hunckler’s case.

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