Law firm miscue in small claims case gets no relief on appeal

A law firm that failed to respond to an Allen County small claims court’s inquiry about settlement discussions because the attorney handling the case had left the firm got no relief Friday from the Indiana Court of Appeals.

Fort Wayne Steak ‘n Shake customer Ronald E. Smith was awarded a $250 judgment from the restaurant. He claimed he was injured when he pulled paper towels from a restroom dispenser and the unit that contained an attached steel wastebasket detached from the wall and fell on his leg.

Smith, who represented himself, had sought the small claims statutory maximum $6,000 in damages, and the restaurant hired an attorney to argue on its behalf. After the case was argued, counsel for the restaurant asked the court to hold the case under advisement for 60 days so the parties could discuss possible settlement, and the motion was granted.

After 60 days passed without contact, court staff called the law firm, but the first call wasn’t returned. A second call was returned, but the lawyer who represented the restaurant no longer worked there, so the court entered the $250 judgment for Smith. Notice of the judgment was sent to the restaurant, though, instead of the law firm. The court denied a motion to set aside the judgment, but acknowledged its notice mistake and extended the period for appeal.

In a memorandum decision Friday, Judge Paul Mathias affirmed the trial court and rejected appellate arguments even though Smith filed no appellate brief, finding sufficient evidence to sustain the judgment.

“The Restaurant argues that Smith ‘failed to present any evidence’ that it had actual or constructive knowledge of the defect … but this is not so,” Mathias wrote, noting Smith testified workers said they were aware of problems with the unit and the court found this credible.  

“The Restaurant argues further that it presented contrary evidence,” he wrote, “but we have no record of it, and in any event, the trial court was free to discredit it. … Finally, the Restaurant argues that ‘it was just as, if not more likely,’ that Smith caused his own injuries … but this is mere speculation we will not entertain.”

The case is Steak `N Shake No. 315 v. Ronald E. Smith (mem. dec.), 02A03-1604-SC-890.

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