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Trial court erred in granting new trial in electrocution estate dispute

January 18, 2017

A trial court erred in ordering a new trial after a jury returned a general verdict in favor of the estate of an electrician who wired a barn where a teenager was electrocuted in 2010, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

A Noble County jury ruled in favor of the estate of Gary Pfafman, who had years earlier assisted in the wiring of outbuildings on the farm of his brother-in-law, Roger Diehm. He also had wired but not connected electricity for trough de-icers that Diehm installed years later, but without code-required breakers or circuit interrupters.

Kole Craig, 16, was socializing with Diehm’s children on the farm on the evening of July 28, 2010, after a thunderstorm had struck a tree on the farm earlier, which burned outlets in the farm’s house. When a younger child found a dead cow, Craig went to investigate with another child and was fatally shocked on a gate that was electrified after the storm.

Cole’s estate sued numerous parties including Diehm and manufacturers connected to the de-icers who settled separately. But a jury ruled in favor of Pfafman’s estate, finding among other things that he had instructed Diehm about precautions he would need to take if he installed de-icers, and that Diehm incorrectly wired them and failed to properly maintain them. The court found the lightning strike caused the de-icer to malfunction and short-circuit.

But Craig’s estate moved for and was granted a new trial under Trial Rule 59(J), which allows courts to grant new trials to correct an error in prior proceedings. In its findings granting a new trial, the trial court found that Pfafman violated the national electrical code and the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the grant of a new trial in The Estate of Gary Pfafman v. Lori Lancaster, Individually, and as Guardian of the Estate of Kole Craig, 57A03-1603-CC-516 .

“(T)he trial court’s order omits any meaningful analysis of the evidence, including testimony by Craig’s Estate’s own witnesses, that Diehm and Farm Innovators proximately caused Craig’s injuries,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the majority joined by Judge John Baker. “Given the evidence that there were several but-for causes of Craig’s injuries attributable to the nonparties, the jury was entitled to allocate 100% fault to one or both of the nonparties and 0% to Pfafman. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s order and reinstate the jury’s verdict in favor of Pfafman’s Estate,” Najam wrote.

Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik concurred with the result but wrote separately in the 34-page opinion. “I respectfully disagree with the majority that a jury is allowed to find an actor proximately caused an injury, yet decline to allocate a percentage of fault to that actor.” 

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