COA reverses summary judgment over questions of employment status of deceased driver

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A fatal 2017 traffic accident is headed back to the trial court after the Court of Appeals of Indiana found too many questions still remain as to whether the driver alleged to have caused the collision was working as an employee or independent contractor at the time of the collision.

Jonathan Zeigler was delivering packages for Wheels Assured when he crossed the center line in Allen County and hit Gregory Mitchell’s car head-on. Zeigler and Mitchell died as a result of the collision and Zeigler’s front-seat passenger, Jennifer Pfadt, sustained “significant injuries.”

Pfadt and Amanda Mitchell, as a personal representative of Mitchell’s estate, filed separate lawsuits against Zeigler’s estate and Wheels Assured, claiming the company was responsible for Zeigler’s negligence because he was acting in the scope of his employment at the time of the accident.

Wheels Assured filed for summary judgment, arguing the company was not liable because Zeigler was an independent contractor. The plaintiffs countered a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Zeigler was acting as an employee or an independent contractor.

The Marion Superior Court sided with Wheels Assured and granted summary judgment.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed in Jennifer Pfadt v. Wheels Assured Delivery Systems, Inc., and Jason Shartzer, Special Administrator for the Estate of Jonathan R. Zeigler, and Amanda Mitchell as Personal Representative of the Estate of Gregory Mitchell, Deceased, v. Jason Shartzer, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Jonathan Zeigler, and Wheels Assured Delivery Systems, Inc., 21A-CT-1449.

Throughout the 34-page opinion, the Court of Appeals transposes the second and third letters of the deceased defendant’s last name. In the trial court documents and on the title of the appellate decision, the name is mostly presented as Zeigler, but a list of witnesses and exhibits  filed by the attorney for the estate’s personal representative has the name as Ziegler.

In evaluating Zeigler’s employment status, the appellate panel turned to Moberly v. Day, 757 N.E.2d 1007, 1009 (Ind. 2001), which offered a 10-factor test for determining whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor.

The Court of Appeals concluded three Moberly factors weighed in favor of employee status – the level of skill required, the length of employment, and that the principal is in business. Two factors weighed in favor of independent contractor status – the method of payment and the parties’ beliefs in whether they are creating the employer-employee relationship.

The COA reached no decision on the remaining five factors – extent of control which the business may exercise over the details of the work; whether the one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation; if the work is usually done under supervision or not; whether the employer or worker supplies the tools and location for performing the job; and if the work is part of the regular business of the employers.

“A trier of fact could determine that any of the five remaining Moberly factors weigh in favor of either employees or independent contractor status,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the court. “A trier of fact needs to weigh the evidence to determine the nature of the relationship between Zeigler and Wheels Assured, and ultimately, whether Ziegler (sic) was an employee of Wheels Assured or an independent contractor.”

Pfadt also claimed Wheels Assured was liable under an apparent agency theory. Likewise, the appellate panel a genuine issues of material fact exists as to whether Pfadt’s observations of Zeigler as he performed his job led her to believe he was acting as a Wheels Assured agent.

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