Horse sense: Man’s case reinstated, counsel’s sanctions lifted on appeal

A LaPorte County man who tried to legally close the barn door after his horses allegedly got out and injured his neighbor must stand trial, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday. The panel also found the trial court erred by closing the courthouse door to evidence that it wasn’t the first time these horses went on the lam.

Robert Gacsy sued Todd Reinert in LaPorte Superior Court after Gacsy claimed he was injured when Reinert’s horses got free from their enclosure, bumped into Gacsy and knocked him to the ground. Gacsy claimed this was not the first time Reinert’s horses had gotten free, but Judge Richard Stalbrink approved Reinert’s motion in limine excluding all evidence related to prior escapes of Reinert’s horses.

A mistrial was declared in the first trial after Gacsy’s counsel was found to have repeatedly violated the order in limine. Stalbrink warned Gacsy’s counsel that further violations in a second trial would result in dismissal of his client’s case.

At a second trial that began in May 2019, Gacsy’s counsel relied on Reinert’s deposition when he told jurors during opening statements, “You’re going to learn [Reinert’s fence] wasn’t built very well and that about two months before [Gacsy] was injured it found a failure. That’s the words [Reinert] will tell you. The fence found a failure … .”

Reinert’s counsel again moved for a mistrial, which Stalbrink granted. The judge made findings that Gacsy’s counsel “was reminded several times of the importance of complying with the Court’s orders. They were also repeatedly reminded that this meant there could be no reference to prior or subsequent escapes by the horses. Yet not even five minutes into [Gacsy’s] Counsel’s opening statement they referenced a prior escape by the horses … .”

The trial court also found “that the conduct of [Gacsy’s] Attorney was intentional and reckless. Based on the forgoing, the Court finds that [Gacsy’s] Attorneys engaged in egregious misconduct and caused a mistrial making the imposition of sanctions just.” As a sanction, the trial court dismissed the case with prejudice.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed entirely in Robert Gacsy v. Todd Reinhart, 19A-CT-1345.

“By stating that the fence ‘found a failure,’ it is apparent that counsel was twisting himself into proverbial knots to try to make his case while also abiding by the trial court’s order,” Judge John Baker wrote for the panel. “Counsel tried to explain to the trial court that he was faced with an impossible task: ‘I’m now tasked with showing the confinement was inadequate, yet they’re saying [I] can’t put on evidence that it was inadequate. I mean, that’s what I’m trying to do.’”

The panel found counsel’s statement that the fence “found a failure” did not violate the order in limine and that the trial court therefore erred in declaring a mistrial. The COA remanded for a new trial, but it didn’t stop there.

“Because the foreseeability of the escape of the horses is directly at issue in a negligent confinement claim, we can only find that it was erroneous to exclude evidence related to the prior escapes of Reinert’s horses,” Baker wrote. “Indeed, to prove his claim, Gacsy was required to prove that Reinert knew that his confinement was inadequate and ineffective before Gacsy was injured.

“… The alleged prior escapes of Reinert’s horses, as well as the condition of the fence, are directly relevant to Gacsy’s claim. Therefore, evidence related to those escapes should be admitted in a new trial,” the panel held. “Additionally, we note that the trial court imposed sanctions upon Gacsy for the failures to abide by the order in limine in the first trial. Because we find that the order was improper and placed Gacsy’s counsel in an impossible position, we direct the trial court to strike the sanctions on remand.”

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