Supreme Court allows legal malpractice claim to continue

April 13, 2018

A legal malpractice claim against a suspended northern Indiana attorney and his firm will continue after the Indiana Supreme Court found a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the plaintiff’s premises liability claim would have succeeded had the firm not failed to timely file her complaint.

While visiting her husband at St. Anthony Hospital in Crown Point, 85-year-old Elizabeth Roumbos walked around the foot of the hospital bed to a table on the other side of the bed, where a pitcher of water was located. After giving the water to her husband, Roumbos began to walk back to her seat on the other side of the bed, but tripped and fell on the way, resulting in a fractured femur. Roumbos claimed she tripped on cords and wires that were on the floor, but that she did not see them until after she fell.

The elderly woman hired now-suspended attorney Samuel Vazanellis and his firm, Thiros and Stracci, P.C., to represent her in her premises liability suit against the hospital. However, the firm failed to file Roumbos’ complaint within the applicable statute of limitations, so she sued for legal malpractice.

The Lake Superior Court initially entered summary judgment in favor of the firm, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in February 2017, then reaffirmed its decision the following June. The case went to the Indiana Supreme Court in November, and in a Thursday opinion the justices determined the summary judgment ruling was improper.

Specifically, Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the phone cords and wires that caused Roumbos’ fall were either a “known” or “obvious” danger. Looking first to whether the danger was “known,” Slaughter pointed to Roumbos’ testimony that she did not see the wires until after her fall to show it was not known. But turning to the question of an “obvious” danger, Slaughter said a jury could reasonably find the wires were not obvious to an ordinary person.

“For all we know the hospital bed and table obstructed the wires from view until Roumbos was right on top of them,” Slaughter wrote. “And by then it was too late.”

“The mere presence of a phone on the portable hospital table did not necessarily mean that a dangerous tripping threat existed on the floor that should have been obvious from Roumbos’ vantage point,” the justice continued. “Whether the wires generally, or the phone cord specifically, were obvious because they would have been apparent to a reasonable person under the circumstances is a disputed issue of material fact on this record that precludes summary judgment.”

Thus, the high court reversed the grant of summary judgment to the firm and remanded the case of Elizabeth Roumbos v. Samuel G. Vazanellis & Thiros and Stracci, P.C., 45S03-1710-CT-635, for further proceedings.

All justices concurred.


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