DTCI: Foreseeability and duty of care

By Jennifer L.Schuster

schuster-jennifer-dtci-bw-mug Schuster

If your client is sued for negligence, determining whether it owed a duty of care to the plaintiff can make a world of difference in the outcome of the case. Two recent Indiana Supreme Court opinions have clarified how Indiana courts should analyze foreseeability to determine whether a duty of care is owed to the plaintiff.

Every negligence case will necessarily involve an analysis of foreseeability in the context of proximate causation, and some cases will also involve analysis of foreseeability in the context of duty. However, the analysis of foreseeability is different in each case. In addition, foreseeability in the context of proximate causation is a question of fact, while foreseeability in the context of duty is a question of law.

Goodwin v. Yeakle Sports Bar and Grill, Inc., 62 N.E.3d 384 (Ind. 2016), and Rogers v. Martin, 62 N.E.3d 316 (Ind. 2016), issued by the Supreme Court on the same day, analyzed the issue of foreseeability in the context of determining whether a defendant owed a duty of care to a plaintiff. In Goodwin, the plaintiffs were shot and injured in the defendant neighborhood bar. In Martin, one man was killed and another was injured in a fistfight while attending a party at the defendants’ home. The plaintiffs in both cases sued for negligence, and both cases raised the issue whether the defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiffs.

In Goodwin, the court acknowledged that “[a]t least part of the confusion in this area of law is grounded in the fact that for most negligence actions foreseeability is a component of proximate causation only.” 62 N.E.3d at 389. Analyzing foreseeability in the context of proximate cause requires an inquiry into the facts of the incident that actually occurred and whether they were foreseeable, as opposed to the more general analysis that applies to analyzing foreseeability in the context of duty. “[I]n those instances where foreseeability is an element of duty, this necessarily means the court must determine the question of foreseeability as a matter of law. When doing so, the court is tasked with engaging in a general analysis of the broad type of plaintiff and harm involved without regard to the facts of the actual occurrence.Goodwin, 62 N.E.3d at 394 (emphasis added); see also Rogers, 63 N.E.3d at 325.

In Goodwin, the court determined that “[t]he broad type of plaintiff here is a patron of a bar and the harm is the probability or likelihood of a criminal attack, namely: a shooting inside a bar. But even engaging in a ‘lesser inquiry’ we conclude that although bars can often set the stage for rowdy behavior, we do not believe that bar owners routinely contemplate that one bar patron might suddenly shoot another.” Id. at 393-94. The court concluded:

[T]o impose a blanket duty on proprietors to afford protection to their patrons would make proprietors insurers of their patrons’ safety which is contrary to the public policy of this state. Further such a blanket duty would abandon the notion of liability based on negligence and enter the realm of strict liability in tort which assumes no negligence of the actor, but chooses to impose liability anyway. We decline to impose such liability here.

Id. at 394 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Under Indiana law, it is well established that a landowner must exercise reasonable care for an invitee’s protection while he is on the landowner’s premises. However, analyzing foreseeability is critical in determining whether this duty extends to a particular situation. Rogers, 63 N.E.3d at 320. “[B]oth harmful conditions and harmful activities on land may implicate a landowner’s duty.” Id. at 323.

With regard to this issue in Rogers, the court found that it was not reasonably foreseeable to expect that house-party guests would physically fight each other, and therefore the homeowner had no duty to protect the plaintiff’s decedent from a physical attack from another party guest. “[T]o require a homeowner to take precautions to avoid this unpredictable situation would essentially make the homeowner an insurer for all social guests’ safety.” Rogers, 63 N.E.3d at 326. However, the court found that the defendant homeowner did owe a duty to the decedent “after she found him lying unconscious on her basement floor. Homeowners should reasonably expect that a house-party guest who is injured on the premises could suffer from an exacerbation of those injuries.” Id. at 327. Thus, questions of fact existed regarding whether the defendant homeowner breached that duty and regarding proximate causation. Id.

Both Goodwin and Rogers could prove very helpful to defendants in negligence cases, especially in cases involving a “freak accident” or other unlikely occurrence, or in cases in which the defendant’s connection to the plaintiff’s injury is tenuous at best.

For example, in Neal v. IAB Financial Bank, 68 N.E.3d 1114 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), the plaintiff sued a bank after she was involved in a car accident with a drunk driver. Just before the accident, the bank’s employees had helped the drunk driver change a flat tire in the bank’s parking lot. The employees noticed that he seemed impaired, and after the driver left the bank, one employee called 9-1-1 to report that he might have been drinking. 68 N.E.3d at 1116. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, finding that it owed no duty to the plaintiff, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, citing Rogers. In analyzing the foreseeability element of duty, the Court of Appeals noted that “our inquiry is whether a duty should be imposed on the Bank, a financial institution, to take precautions to protect motorists on the public roadways from the potential of a stranded motorist being intoxicated, before it gratuitously attempts to render aid to that stranded motorist.” Id. at 1121. It concluded:

[I]t is therefore not reasonably foreseeable to a third person—whether it be an individual or business—who acts as Good Samaritan, that a stranded motorist to whom they render aid will harm another motorist on the public roadway. To require every individual who undertakes to aid a stranded motorist to safeguard against the possibility that motorist may be intoxicated would be requiring those individuals to ensure the safety of all motorists. We do not believe reasonable persons would recognize such a duty exists.

Id. at 1121–22.

Because duty is an issue of law, if you plan to file a motion for summary judgment in a negligence case, consider the Supreme Court’s Goodwin and Rogers opinions as you analyze whether your client owed a duty of care to the plaintiff in your case.•

Ms. Schuster is managing associate in the Indianapolis office of Frost Brown Todd and is a member of the DTCI Product Liability Section. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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