Less than two years ago, the Indiana Supreme Court issued two injury law opinions that reshaped the foreseeability criteria courts consider when weighing premises liability lawsuits.
Premises liability is predicated on the legal theory that businesses and/ or property owners have a duty of care to shield invited customers or guests from an unreasonable risk of harm. The element of a “duty of care” is the foundation for any lawsuit alleging negligence, as is the breach of duty and the fact that the breach caused the injury. In premises liability cases in particular, foreseeability of danger is what establishes the duty.
The new test model was outlined in a pair of 2016 rulings – Goodwin v. Yeakle’s Sports Bar & Grills, Inc. and Rogers v. Martin. It’s particularly relevant to those cases stemming from a third-party criminal attack on someone else’s property. In both cases, the state high court established that courts must decide as a matter of law (by the judge) rather than as a matter of fact (by the jury) whether the injury in question was foreseeable by analyzing a broad type of harm and a broad type of plaintiff. This differs substantially from the previous approach, which relied on fact-sensitive inquiries. Those two cases have been cited as precedent-setting in a number of recent Indiana premises liability cases.
This shift is one your Munster injury attorney will need to weigh carefully when formulating trial strategy in premises liability claims.
Prior to the Goodwin and Rogers rulings, courts were instructed to consider the totality of the circumstances to ascertain whether a harm was foreseeable. Defendants fought to have the issue of foreseeability (and thus duty) in summary judgment from the judge, while plaintiffs would argue the court should send those questions to a jury to decide. Plaintiffs argued that determination of whether an act was foreseeable is fact-intensive based on the circumstances of the incident, which would mean summary judgment wouldn’t be appropriate.
Now with this new approach that was established in 2016, an increasing number of defendants are seeking (and being granted) summary judgment in Indiana premises liability lawsuits before the case reaches the trial phase.
In the Goodwin case, the question that arose was whether a bar owed a duty of care to protect one of its customers from a shooting after the plaintiff allegedly made a derogatory comment about the assailant’s wife. The Indiana Supreme Court granted the defense motion for summary judgment, finding there was no duty established when the foreseeability of sudden gun violence at a local bar could not be proven.
In the Rogers case, the court was asked to consider whether the homeowner owed a duty to keep a party guest safe from a physical fight that erupted with a co-host and also whether it was foreseeable that his injuries were made worse after the home owner failed to help him when she discovered him motionless on her basement floor after the confrontation. Although the court found that a brawl is not a foreseeable consequence of a house party, there were questions of fact as to whether the defendant had acted negligently in failing to seek medical help for her injured guest and the exacerbation of his injuries was foreseeable.
Still, there is a great deal of ambiguity in these decisions, and there are a flurry of premises liability cases now making their way through Indiana civil courts that consider these matters. For instance, earlier this year, the Indiana Court of Appeals weighed the case of Hamilton v. Steak ‘n Shake Operations, Inc., wherein plaintiff was the victim of a shooting inside the fast-food restaurant. Defendant sought summary judgment, arguing such an incident wasn’t foreseeable. The appellate court, however, disagreed, noting that staffers were aware of a growing conflict at the site for a full half hour before the shooting occurred.
Some have expressed concern that this new pre-trial test could result in up to 60 percent of duties owed by premises liability defendants, therefore putting additional undue burden on plaintiff to try to weed out some exception that would show the danger was foreseeable. It may further result in fewer cases being settled through negotiation pre-litigation or pre-trial because defendants may want to take their chances at trial, knowing their odds of summary judgment are higher. An experienced injury attorney in Munster can help you weigh your options.
Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.
Hamilton v. Steak ‘n Shake Operations, Inc., March 7, 2018, Indiana Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Rogers v. Martin – Indiana Supreme Court Weighs Duty of Care for Party Hosts, November 16, 2016, Indiana Personal Injury Attorney Blog