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Appellate court orders new trial for car crash victim

May 18, 2018

A man injured in a LaGrange County car crash will get a second chance to make his negligence case against the driver who allegedly caused the collision after the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed judgment in favor of the allegedly negligent driver and remanded the case for a new trial.

In the early morning of Jan. 31, 2014, Rebecca Hites was traveling west on U.S. 20 when she lost control of her vehicle, crossed the center line and struck Calvin Yates’ vehicle. Yates was injured and sued Hites for negligently and recklessly driving her vehicle.

Hites requested a “sudden emergency” jury instruction at trial based on the black ice that allegedly caused her to lose control. Yates, in turn, moved to exclude testimony or evidence related to Hites’ sudden emergency and related to the black ice. The LaGrange Superior Court granted both of Yates’ requests and denied the jury instruction.

Hites then testified at trial that the weather had been bad in the days leading up to the crash, while Indiana State Police Trooper March Leatherman testified that his investigation showed Hites had been driving too fast for the weather conditions, which included black ice. As a result of that testimony — which Hites said provided evidence of a sudden emergency — the trial court allowed the sudden emergency instruction over Yates’ objection.

The jury then found in favor of Hites, so Yates appealed in Calvin B. Yates v. Rebecca Hites, 44A03-1710-CT-2459. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed that judgment Friday, with Judge L. Mark Bailey writing the record was “completely devoid of evidence that Hites’s vehicle drove over black ice.”

“Hites herself never testified that she drove over black ice,” Bailey wrote for the unanimous appellate panel. “Rather, she testified that the roads were not icy that day and that she never saw any ice.”

Further, in closing argument, Hites’ attorney heavily relied on the sudden emergency doctrine to justify the reason why she moved into Yates’ lane. Thus, it is likely that the jury improperly relied on the sudden emergency instruction to reach its verdict, a fact that was prejudicial to Yates, Bailey said.

The court remanded the case for a new trial, but in a footnote, Bailey noted that other states have abolished the sudden emergency instruction and suggested that Indiana should consider following suit.

“We believe that Indiana’s pattern sudden emergency instruction, while an accurate statement of the law that requires the jury to consider the defendant’s actions leading up to the alleged emergency, nevertheless suffers from the potential to mislead the jury into applying a reduced standard of care and/or unduly focusing its attention on the defendant’s actions during and after the emergency rather than on the totality of the circumstances,” Bailey wrote in Footnote 5. “And we believe that the sudden emergency instruction is unnecessary as ‘the rule requiring reasonable care is sufficient to take into consideration the excitement and confusion which normally accompany the emergency situation.’”

  

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