Indiana Woman Injured in Fall Gets New Shot at Trial

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently reversed a trial court summary judgment favoring the defendant in a claim that originated as a premises liability lawsuit stemming from a trip-and-fall that seriously injured an 85-year-old woman. 

According to court records in the case, the question was whether the trial court erred, even though the evidence tended to show the plaintiff, as a business invitee, knew about the dangerous condition on the floor.

The appellate court justices ruled there remained a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the owner of the property should have anticipated the plaintiff’s harm, despite her knowledge of the danger. Therefore, the trial court’s ruling was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

The incident in question occurred in January 2011. The plaintiff’s husband was a patient at the defendant hospital. She had visited him there numerous times on previous occasions. During these visits, her husband would request from her a drink of water. She would oblige, and when he was finished, he would give the glass back to her, and she would return it to the table from which she had gotten it.

On one occasion, the plaintiff was returning the glass of water back to the table when she tripped over wires that were running along the floor underneath the table. This resulted in a severe injury to the plaintiff.

Later, during a deposition, she was asked whether she had to walk over the wires to get the water. She said she did. Asked whether she stepped over them, the plaintiff replied no, she simply walked over them. She agreed with a defense lawyer that if she had looked down when returning the glass of water, she “probably” would have seen the wires.

Unfortunately, while the plaintiff hired a law firm to represent her in a claim of negligence, the attorney failed to file the Indiana personal injury lawsuit within the relevant statute of limitations. She subsequently filed a complaint for legal malpractice against the law firm. The law firm moved for summary judgment. In granting that request, the trial court noted that to prove causation in a claim of legal malpractice, the plaintiff needed to show that but for the law firm’s negligence, the outcome of the personal injury lawsuit against the hospital would have been more favorable. Therefore, she had to prove the hospital breached its duty to her as a business invitee.

The trial court ruled the plaintiff failed to meet her burden in showing a genuine issue of material fact existed about whether she would have obtained a more favorable outcome. The court noted the legal malpractice claim required her to prove “a case-within-a-case.” The law firm had to show that even if it had filed the claim against the hospital in a timely manner, the plaintiff would have been no better off than in the situation in which its alleged negligence placed her. Thus, if the law firm could show the hospital didn’t breach its duty of care – i.e., the hazard was open and obvious – it wouldn’t have mattered if the lawsuit was timely filed.

The plaintiff needed to show the hospital owed her a duty, it breached the duty, and her injury was proximately caused by that breach. Indiana’s Restatement of Torts holds that landowners are liable for harm to invitees if – and only if – the landowner knew or should have known about the dangerous condition and should have realized it posed an unreasonable risk of harm. Plaintiffs must also show the landowner should have expected invitees would not discover the danger or would fail to protect themselves from that danger, and the landowner failed to exercise reasonable care in protecting invitees.

Here, the plaintiff testified that she had seen the wires and walked over them once, and presumably she would have seen them again had she looked down. Thus, there was no question the plaintiff knew about the hazard. However, the appeals court ruled the trial court never got to the issue of whether the landowner could have and should have anticipated the dangerous condition would cause physical harm to an invitee, notwithstanding its obvious or known danger.

Therefore, the case was remanded back to the trial court for further consideration.

Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:

Roumbos v. Vazanellis, Feb. 24, 2017, Indiana Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Fair Stage Collapse Not Foreseeable, Indiana Appeals Court Rules, Feb. 16, 2017, Munster Injury Lawyer Blog

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