New Castle Schools negligence case headed to trial

The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed summary judgment in case stemming from an altercation in a New Castle career program, finding that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether the school was negligent.

While enrolled as students at New Castle Community School Corp.’s New Castle Career Center, Wyatt Severance, 17, and Turner Melton, 19, were working on a job site as part of a career training program when Melton stole a bag of sunflower seeds out of Severance’s hand. Melton then began ordering other students around on the job site, and when Severance confronted him about his behavior, an altercation ensued.

During the fight, the students pushed each other and hit each other with a broom, using enough force to cause Severance to black out. He ultimately suffered a tibial plateau fracture that required surgery and resulted in a permanent injury.

Severance filed a complaint against Melton and the school, alleging negligence, but the school moved for summary judgment, alleging Severance was contributorily negligent and that it had not breached its duty to him. In response, Severance designated the expert affidavit of Dr. Jean Peterson, who used the affidavit to address bully culture and presented 15 ways the altercation could have been prevented.

The school moved to strike Peterson’s affidavit, arguing that it contained “conclusory opinions unsupported by facts or evidence” and included a conclusion of law that the school was negligent.  The Henry Circuit Court granted the school’s motion to strike, as well as its motion to summary judgment.

On appeal, Severance argued the motion to strike Peterson’s affidavit was untimely, and striking it was against the logic and facts before the court. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed Thursday that striking the affidavit was error, with Judge John Baker writing, “Dr. Petersen’s expertise could assist the trial court in addressing the dispositive issues of the case.”

Severance also argued the grant of summary judgment to the school was erroneous because “the School did not negate any element of Severance’s claims and because Severance was not contributorily negligent as a matter of law.”

The appellate court agreed, with Baker noting that other students had testified they avoided Melton because of his verbally abusive nature, but they often did not take their problems to their teacher because he seemed busy. Thus, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the school provided adequate supervision, Baker said.

Further, the Court of Appeals held that there are additional genuine issues of material fact as to whether Severance was contributorily negligent, also making the case inappropriate for summary judgment. Thus, summary judgment was reversed and the case of Wyatt Severance v. New Castle Community School Corporation a/k/a New Castle Career Center and Turner Melton, 33A01-1609-CT-2088, was remanded for further proceedings.

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