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COA reverses civil ruling for alleged drunken driver

April 3, 2019

The victim of an alleged drunken driving accident will have the opportunity to seek punitive damages after the Indiana Court of Appeals determined summary judgment for the allegedly drunken driver was not appropriate.

After drinking nearly three beers while driving from Hobart to Valparaiso, Ronald Brown rear-ended Ismael Alicea and fled the scene. Despite later lying to a sheriff’s deputy about being the driver who caused the accident, Alicea learned Brown’s identity and filed a negligence complaint. According to a footnote in Ismael Alicea v. Ronald Brown,18A-CT-2495, it’s unclear how Alicea determined that Brown was the driver.  

Brown then testified at a subsequent deposition that he had been drinking at the time of the accident, so Alicea filed an amended complaint seeking punitive damages. The Porter Superior Court, however, granted partial summary judgment to Brown on the punitive damages claim, prompting the instant appeal.

On appeal, Alicea argued Brown did not sustain his summary judgment burden to negate an element of the punitive damages claim, and the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Writing for a unanimous appellate panel, Judge Edward Najam said Brown’s summary judgment motion “ignores the undisputed evidence that calls into question his credibility.”

“For instance, Brown violated the law when he drank alcohol while driving, left the scene of a collision, and lied to law enforcement shortly thereafter about those acts,” Najam wrote Wednesday. “Moreover, the facts as alleged by Brown, such as whether he was impaired or intoxicated at the time of the collision, ‘are peculiarly’ within Brown’s knowledge, and there should be an opportunity to impeach him at trial.

“Because a reasonable trier of fact could choose to disbelieve Brown’s account of the facts,” Najam continued, “we hold that Brown has not sustained his burden to affirmatively negate an element of Alicea’s punitive damages claim, and the trial court erred when it granted partial summary judgment for Brown on that claim.”

Thus, the trial court’s decision was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

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