Indiana Supreme Court: Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District is a political subdivision, employee’s injury lawsuit untimely

Indiana Supreme Court justices have affirmed judgment for a commuter transportation district that operates a government-owned railroad against a man who was allegedly injured while working on the tracks, concluding his lawsuit was untimely since the district is a “political subdivision” under the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

In Clarence Lowe v. Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, 20A-CT-1584, the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed summary judgment granted to Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District — which operates the South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend— on a negligence claim brought by Clarence Lowe after he was allegedly injured as a result of negligence while working as a railroad employee.

Lowe sent a notice of tort claim to the Indiana attorney general, who received the notice 263 days after Lowe sustained the injury. The district argued, among other things, that for purposes of the Indiana Tort Claims Act, it is a political subdivision, not a state agency, and because Lowe failed to serve it with a notice of tort claim within 180 days after his injury, the act bars his Federal Employers’ Liability Act claim. The Porter Superior Court granted summary judgment to the District and against Lowe.

Appellate judges in a memorandum decision similarly found that Lowe’s FELA claim was subject to the Indiana Tort Claims Act and that he failed to comply with the ITCA’s requirement that the governing body of a political subdivision be provided notice within 180 days of a loss.

Upon granting transfer in the case, the Indiana Supreme Court was left to determine an “important question of first impression” of whether the district is a “state agency” or “political subdivision” under the Indiana Tort Claims Act. If a state agency, the act requires that pre-suit notice be served within 270 days of the injury. But if a political subdivision, pre-suit notice must be served within 180 days.

“We hold that the District is a political subdivision under the Act. Thus, it was entitled to notice within 180 days of Lowe’s alleged injury,” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote for the high court. “Because Lowe did not provide notice until 263 days after his injury, his notice was untimely, and his suit is time-barred.”

As to Lowe’s argument that he is not subject to the 180-day requirement despite the act’s plain terms, he argued that he substantially complied with the act by filing to the attorney general within 270 days and that he is entitled to relief under the 11th Amendment.

“In other words, he noticed the wrong actor and observed the wrong timeframe. Yet on appeal, Lowe argues that providing notice to the attorney general fewer than 270 days after his accident substantially complied with the Act. But our substantial compliance doctrine is clear: substantial compliance is a question of content not timing,” Slaughter wrote.

The high court also found Lowe’s arguments regarding sovereign immunity to be unavailing.

“Here, Lowe sued the District in an Indiana court,” Slaughter continued. “Yet his sovereign immunity arguments tend to ignore state-law concepts of sovereign immunity and would require our courts to apply federal Eleventh Amendment immunity instead. But we are not a federal court. And Lowe fails to argue, let alone persuade us, that an Indiana court is beholden to police its exercise of jurisdiction against its sovereign state in the same way that a federal (or a sister state court) must.”

Even had he raised his sovereign immunity arguments, the high court concluded that it would be “hard-pressed to find that the primary concern permeating Eleventh Amendment immunity—protecting states as sovereigns in the federal system — justifies a federal mandate that state courts adjudicating private suits against their respective states must apply federal sovereign-immunity principles in lieu of their state’s own protections.”

“Under the Act, the District is a political subdivision, and any claim against it is barred unless a claimant provides notice within 180 days of the injury. Lowe’s arguments neither legally nor factually excuse his failing to provide timely notice,” the opinion concluded.  “Thus, we affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for the District and against Lowe.”

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