Indiana Supreme Court
Civil Tort – Duty
Michael Ryan v. TCI Architects/Engineers/Contractors, Inc. and BMH Enterprises, Inc. d/b/a Craft Mechanical
A general contractor assumed a non-delegable duty of care to the employee of a sub-subcontractor through its contractual language, the Indiana Supreme Court decided, reversing summary judgment to the general contractor on the issue of duty.
In June 2012, TCI Architects entered into an agreement to serve as general contractor on a Gander Mountain construction project in Lafayette. TCI hired subcontractor Craft Mechanical, which then entered into a sub-subcontract with B.A. Romines Sheet Metal to perform heating and ventilation work.
In the Craft-Romines contract, Romines had the responsibility to implement safety precautions and comply with applicable law. Similarly, TCI placed the onus on ensuring employee safety on Craft in its subcontract.
One day while Romines employee Michael Ryan was working on the project, he fell from an 8-foot ladder and sustained serious injuries. Ryan sued TCI and Craft, claiming the companies had breached their duty to provide a safe workplace.
Ryan then moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of duty, arguing both defendants had a non-delegable contractual obligation to provide a safe work environment. TCI filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on duty, breach and proximate cause, and the Marion Superior Court denied Ryan’s motion and granted TCI’s.
A divided Indiana Court of Appeals found the contract between TCI and Gander Mountain did not create a duty.
Justice Steve David, writing for the court, first noted “a general contractor, such as TCI, will ordinarily owe no outright duty of care to a subcontractor’s employees, much less so to employees of a sub-subcontractor.” However, a duty of care can exist between a contractor and subcontractor “where a contractual obligation imposes a ‘specific duty’ on the general contractor,” David said.
“By assuming responsibility for implementing and monitoring all safety precautions and programs related to work performance, TCI expressly shouldered the duty of carrying out and periodically supervising the very safety policies that may have prevented worker injury here,” David wrote. “Assumption of responsibility also means that TCI assumed the risk of liability for damages that might have been incurred if any of those safety precautions and programs were to ever fall short of the reasonable standard of care.”
The court granted Ryan’s motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of duty and remanded for further proceedings on breach, causation and damages.
Criminal – Cellphone Location Data
Marcus Zanders v. State of Indiana
A criminal suspect had no expectation of privacy regarding the cellphone location information police obtained without a warrant before his arrest, a divided Indiana Supreme Court ruled.
Justices approved the convictions of Marcus Zanders, who robbed liquor stores in Lawrenceburg and Dillsboro six days apart. Police asked Sprint for Zanders’ cell site location information, which they received without a warrant. But before police could use the data, Ohio authorities arrested him in Cincinnati.
Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the majority joined by Justices Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter that police didn’t need a warrant to obtain information from Sprint pinpointing his recent whereabouts. Justice Steven David wrote a dissent joined by Justice Robert Rucker saying he was “troubled” by the landmark holding and that Zanders’ rights under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution were violated.
“Under federal precedent, the Fourth Amendment does not require police to obtain a search warrant to gather information an individual has voluntarily relinquished to a third party,” Rush wrote for the majority. “We hold that this rule, the ‘third-party doctrine,’ applies here, so Zanders had no reasonable expectation of privacy in Sprint’s historical (cell site location information). And under Indiana precedent, Article 1, Section 11 of our State Constitution does not prohibit police from taking reasonable actions — like obtaining minimally intrusive historical CSLI from a service provider to prevent an armed-robbery suspect from striking again.”
Rush wrote that while police didn’t use the cell location data to find Zanders, they were justified in obtaining it without a warrant in this case.
“On different facts, of course, the Section 11 scales might well have tipped the other way. Had police not linked Zanders’s Facebook page to the robberies, the level of suspicion might have been negligible. Had police obtained more sophisticated cell-phone records — like GPS or triangulated CSLI — the level of intrusion might have been higher. And had Zanders already been in custody when police requested the CSLI or had he been suspected of a less violent crime, the level of law enforcement needs might have been minimal. Those nuances, however, must wait for another case.”
All justices agreed there were no Fourth Amendment violations in Zanders’ case and that a detective who explained CSLI evidence to the jury properly testified as a skilled witness, not an expert witness, due to his specialized training.
Civil Tort – Immigration Status
Noe Escamilla v. Shiel Sexton Company, Inc.
After reversing a trial court’s decision to admit a plaintiff’s unauthorized immigrant status as evidence in his case for decreased earning capacity damages, the Indiana Supreme Court laid out a new framework for determining when immigration status can be admissible.
Noe Escamilla moved to the United States from Mexico as a teenager with his parents. His wife and three children are all U.S. citizens.
In December 2010, Escamilla’s employer assigned him to work on a job at Wabash College that required him to try to raise a heavy capstone with his workers. While trying to raise the stone, Escamilla slipped on ice and fell, suffering a hernia and severely injuring his back. As a result, Escamilla now has a permanent disability that restricts him from lifting more than 20 pounds, barring him from future work as a masonry laborer.
Escamilla sued Shiel Sexton, the general contractor on the Wabash project, and retained two experts who concluded his injury decreased his lifetime earning capacity by between $578,194 and $974,421. But Shiel Sexton filed a pretrial motion arguing that Escamilla’s immigration status should bar him from recovering his decreased earning capacity, that his status as an unauthorized immigrant should be admissible because he could be deported at any time, and that the expert testimony should be excluded for failing to account for Escamilla’s immigration status. Escamilla countered with a motion in limine that asked the court to exclude any mention of his immigration status.
The Montgomery Superior Court allowed evidence of Escamilla’s status and excluded his experts’ testimony, finding that their report “improperly looked at wages in the United States, where Escamilla ‘is not legally permitted to work.’” After Escamilla brought an interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in a split decision, with the majority finding “Escamilla can recover decreased earning capacity damages, and that his immigration status would be relevant and admissible if he claimed lost United States wages and faced ‘any risk’ or deportation.” The majority also affirmed the exclusion of the expert testimony.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the trial court’s ruling and instead offered a new framework for addressing the evidentiary question of when immigration status is admissible under Indiana Rule of Evidence 403.
Chief Justice Loretta Rush first held that unauthorized immigrants such as Escamilla may pursue tort claims for decreased earning capacity under Article 1, Section 12 of the Indiana Constitution, known as the Open Courts Clause.
“When Indiana law affords a remedy – like recovering decreased earning capacity – the Open Courts Clause does not permit us to close the courthouse door based solely on the plaintiff’s immigration status,” Rush wrote. “We cannot read the Open Courts Clause’s ‘every person’ guarantee to exclude unauthorized immigrants. And as long as decreased earning capacity remains recoverable in personal injury actions, it is part of administering justice ‘completely.’”
While the court declined to make “sweeping pronouncements” about immigration policy in Escamilla’s case, the opinion laid out a framework for determining when immigration status is admissible.
First, under Rule 403, “a plaintiff’s unauthorized immigration status is inadmissible unless the proponent shows by a preponderance that the plaintiff will be deported.” Immigration status might be relevant to a decreased earning capacity, the chief justice wrote, but it also carries “a high risk of confusing the issues and some risk of unfair prejudice.”
Specifically, Rush wrote that admitting immigration status would confuse the issues by flooding the courtroom with arguments related to immigration status and deportation, creating a “collateral mini-trial” on immigration and forcing juries to consider nuanced immigration issues. Thus, unless a preponderance of the evidence shows that a defendant such as Escamilla will “more likely than not” be deported, the prejudice of his or her immigration status substantially outweighs its probative value.
Finally, the justices found that the trial court abused its discretion in barring Escamilla’s expert testimony. Thus, the high court reversed and remanded the case to apply the court’s framework to Escamilla’s specific case.
Post Conviction – Counsel Performance
Trondo L. Humphrey v. State of Indiana
A man convicted of murder more than 20 years ago will have a new trial after the Indiana Supreme Court held his trial counsel performed deficiently and his appeal was not barred by the doctrine of laches.
Benjamin Laughlin and Stephen Sites were driving around Anderson looking for crack cocaine one night in April 1995 when they approached three people in an alley who they believed to be cocaine dealers. The dealer got in the cab of the truck Laughlin and Sites were driving and pulled a gun, and when Laughlin tried to grab the gun it was discharged, striking Laughlin in the abdomen.
The dealer jumped out of the truck and ran away, and Laughlin eventually died from his injuries. Donnie Smith, one of the three people in the alley, testified that Trondo Humphrey had been carrying a gun that night, though Smith said he did not hear any shots or see Humphrey approach or enter the truck.
But Roosevelt Brooks, who Smith said was also in the alley, gave an unsworn written statement saying he heard a “noise” after Humphrey approached the truck, then said Humphrey confessed to shooting one of the men. However, at trial Brooks said he was not with Smith and Humphrey on the night of the shooting and repudiated his statement, which had been admitted to impeach the credibility of his courtroom version, saying it was fabricated due to police pressure.
Humphrey was convicted of murder in 1996 and was sentenced 60 years. He appealed, arguing the Madison Circuit Court had abused its discretion in admitting Brooks’ statement into evidence and had erred when it did not admonish the jury to consider the statement for impeachment purposes only. The Indiana Supreme Court initially affirmed his conviction in 1997, holding that the statement was admissible for impeachment purposes only and noting that there were no claims of ineffective assistance of counsel raised in the appeal.
Fifteen years later, Humphrey filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging his trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the admission of Brooks’ statement on hearsay grounds, failing to request the admonishment to the jury, failing to “object to and improperly endorsing the trial court’s erroneous instruction on prior inconsistence statements” and, finally, failing to offer an instruction that “reflected a correct statement of law.”
The state denied Humphrey’s claim and argued that they were barred by the doctrine of laches. The post-conviction court found that Humphrey’s claims were not barred but denied relief on the merits. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the post-conviction court on the issue of laches but reversed on the substantive claims, holding that “Humphrey was prejudiced by counsel’s errors that allowed the jury to consider as substantive evidence the only evidence that identified Humphrey as the shooter.”
Justice Robert Rucker, writing the majority opinion, said Humphrey’s counsel only objected to Brooks’ statement on the basis of an improper foundation, not on hearsay. Had a hearsay objection been raised, the court would have been required to sustain it, Rucker said, so counsel’s failure to do so was a deficiency in his performance.
Similarly, Indiana precedent holds that “if a defendant believes there is a danger that a jury could use a statement as substantive evidence, then it is incumbent upon the defendant to request that the jury be admonished that the statement be used to judge the witness’s credibility only.” Because Humphrey’s counsel did not move for such an admonishment or limiting instructing, his performance was deficient, the high court found.
Further, the trial court’s jury instruction, which stated that jurors “may also consider the out-of-court statements as evidence” was an incorrect statement of law to which Humphrey’s counsel should have objected. Given those deficient performances, Rucker wrote that Humphrey had satisfied the first prong of the two-part test in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).
Humphrey also satisfied the prejudice prong of the Strickland test, Rucker wrote, noting “there is simply no admissible evidence that Humphrey possessed a gun that evening, let alone that he shot Laughlin.”
Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the post-conviction court, writing, “In viewing the evidence without the inadmissible hearsay statements, we believe there is a reasonable probability the result of Humphrey’s trial would have been different, namely Humphrey would not have been convicted of murder.”
In a concurring opinion joined by Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, Justice Mark Massa wrote that the remedy of a new trial was “regrettable and avoidable.” Further, Massa wrote the state failed to develop its laches arguments at the post-conviction court level, leaving those arguments unavailable on appeal and compelling the high court to affirm the determination that Humphrey’s petition was not barred by laches.
“But make no mistake, being compelled to act is a far cry from being satisfied with the outcome, particularly when the outcome – retrial of a convicted murderer two decades later – can subject the criminal justice system to the dismayed contempt of survivors and the public writ large,” he wrote.
Criminal – Motion to Supress
Thomas Pinner v. State of Indiana
Evidence of a man’s illegal possession of a handgun must be suppressed at his trial on remand after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled the evidence was obtained in violation of constitutional protections.
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers received a dispatch advising them of a black male dropping a handgun as he exited a taxi. The officers arrived at the Studio Movie Grill, where the man had exited the cab. They saw a black man matching the description the cab driver had provided seated in the lobby. The officers approached the man, later identified as Thomas Pinner, stood on either side of him and told him the taxi driver had reported that a man matching his description had a handgun on him.
Pinner denied having a weapon, but when he complied with instructions to stand and put his hands up, an officer saw the butt of a gun in Pinner’s pocket. The state charged him with Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license, enhanced to a Level 5 felony due to a prior felony conviction.
Pinner filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the search and seizure were in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The Marion Superior Court denied the motion, finding the officers had reasonable suspicion to approach and question Pinner. A divided Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding “no reasonable suspicion justified the investigatory stop.”
Justice Robert Rucker noted in the opinion the taxi driver’s tip made no “assertion of illegality,” but rather “‘had a tendency to identify a determinate person’ who was in possession of a handgun,” a phrase delineated in Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000). Assuming Pinner was the man the driver was describing, the officers still had no reason to suspect Pinner did not have a valid license to carry the gun, Rucker said.
Further, the court rejected the state’s argument that Pinner’s nervousness created reasonable suspicion and its argument that “the officers were permitted under the Fourth Amendment to briefly detain Defendant to ascertain the legality of the weapon and dispel any suspected criminal activity,” with Rucker noting the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected such “weapons or firearms exceptions.”
The case was remanded for further proceedings.•