Supreme Court upholds dismissal of negligence claim against school district

A man who waited two months to seek reinstatement of a dismissed negligence claim against an Indianapolis school corporation will not be able to pursue his claim further after the Indiana Supreme Court determined his reinstatement bid was actually a collateral attack on a trial court order.

The case of Benjamin S. Smith v. Franklin Township Community School Corporation,  20S-CT-98, traces back to January 2016, when then-17-year-old Benjamin Smith suffered injuries after the vehicle he was driving was rear-ended by a Franklin Township Community Schools. Smith told the school district that he intended to sue, though he did not follow through for more than two years.

Meanwhile, the Indiana General Assembly in 2018 enacted the Claims Against Public Schools Act, requiring a party to satisfy notice requirements before suing a school. If the notice requirements aren’t met, a trial court must dismiss the case with prejudice.

Finally in October 2018 — four months after CAPSA took effect — Smith filed his negligence suit, avoiding the statute of limitations by only nine days. Franklin Township moved to dismiss under CAPSA, arguing Smith did not provide the required notice. Rather than responding to the CAPSA claim, Smith sent a letter demanding $500,000 from the schools to settle the claim.

Following a subsequent conference, the Marion Superior Court dismissed Smith’s claim based on the school district’s assertion that his “later-filed notice was not sufficient.” Then, after two months of inaction, Smith filed three documents in a six-week period, all seeking reinstatement under Trial Rule 41(F).

The trial court denied Smith’s reinstatement efforts, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing with Smith that applying CAPSA to his lawsuit would be an “impermissible retroactive application.” The Supreme Court, however, upheld the dismissal Tuesday.

“Reinstatement is extraordinary relief,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for a unanimous court. “… To that end, a motion for reinstatement is not a substitute for a direct appeal, nor is it intended to address the legal basis of a judgment. … In other words, a party cannot delay raising available arguments and later rely on Trial Rule 41(F) to lodge a collateral attack against the merits of a trial court’s decision.

“… Yet that is precisely what Smith attempted when – in his third and final request for reinstatement – he challenged the propriety of the court’s dismissal,” Rush continued. “This means that, regardless of the merits of Smith’s claims, they are not properly before us.”

The justices noted that the trial court’s dismissal was a final, appealable order that Smith chose not to appeal. And in his three motions for reinstatement, it wasn’t until the third attempt the Smith challenged the merits of the dismissal.

“Specifically, Smith disputed the legal basis underlying the trial court’s order, which he argued constituted ‘good cause’ for reinstatement. Yet each of the claims of error was based on grounds that were known or knowable at the time of the dismissal,” Rush wrote. “In other words, Smith used a Rule 41(F) filing to collaterally attack the trial court’s order. This is impermissible.

“… In sum, Trial Rule 41(F) requires, when a case is dismissed without prejudice, that a reinstatement request is made ‘within a reasonable time’ and for ‘good cause,’” the court concluded. “Given the timing and substance of Smith’s ultimate Rule 41(F) filing, he cannot meet either requirement. Rather, Smith’s request was actually an impermissible collateral attack on the trial court’s dismissal order, and so the court did not abuse its discretion in denying Smith’s motion.”

The case attracted amicus briefs from the Indiana School Boards Association and the Indiana Council of School Attorneys.

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