Reversal: COA reinstates negligence action against school district

The Indiana Court of Appeals has reinstated a man’s negligence claim against a school corporation after one of its school buses collided with the man’s vehicle, leaving him injured.

Benjamin Smith sustained injuries after his vehicle collided with a Franklin Township Community School Corporation school bus, prompting him to send a tort claim notice to the school district in 2016.

Two years later, the Claims Against Public Schools Act went into effect, governing all civil actions or administrative proceedings brought against public schools. Soon after CAPSA became law, Smith filed a negligence claim against the school but was met with a motion to dismiss because he had failed to provide a CAPSA notice prior to filing.

At that point, Smith’s statute of limitations had run out, preventing him from refiling. The Marion Superior Court – which had previously dismissed his suit without prejudice – also denied Smith’s motion for a reinstatement under Indiana Trial Rule 41(F), which he appealed.

On appeal, Smith contended the trial court had abused it discretion in denying the motion because CAPSA did not apply to his claim. He also argued his ITCA notice satisfied the requirements of CAPSA anyway.

Members of the appellate court agreed with Smith, finding the ITCA notice’s compliance with the notice requirements of ITCA were conclusively established and noting the school had never claimed Smith failed to provide a tort claim notice.

Smith additionally contended on appeal that applying CAPSA’s provision to his lawsuit would be an “impermissible retroactive application.” The appellate court likewise concluded that under the circumstances, Smith did more than enough to provide the trial court with an opportunity to rule on the question of retroactivity, thereby preserving it for appellate review.

“We have little trouble concluding that Smith’s retroactivity argument has merit. Applying CAPSA’s notice requirements to Smith’s claim would be to attach new legal consequences to an event that occurred before CAPSA was the law, i.e., retroactively,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the appellate court. “There is, however, no indication whatsoever that the General Assembly intended CAPSA to apply retroactively, much less an express indication. We must therefore presume that only prospective application was intended.”

The panel thus concluded the trial court never should have dismissed Smith’s claim for failing to satisfy CAPSA, also determining the trial court abused its discretion in failing to find good cause to reinstate it.

The case of Benjamin S. Smith v. Franklin Township Community School Corporation, 19A-CT-1244 was therefore reversed and remanded with instructions to reinstate Smith’s tort claim against the school.

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