Archive | May 2014

CoA affirms default judgment

CoA upheld a trial court’s default judgment where the defaulted party committed a series of errors over a period of months. The relevant timeline is as follows:

  • Oct. 23, 2012, Plaintiff files complaint
  • Oct. 27, 2012, Plaintiff personally serves Defendant, who lives across the hall from Plaintiff
  • Dec. 4, 2012, Plaintiff files motion for entry of default
  • Dec. 6, 2012 Defendant admits receiving this motion on this date
  • Dec. 10, 2012 Defendant writes letter to Trial Court requesting additional time to obtain counsel. Letter not received until one week later
  • Dec. 11, 2012 Plaintiff obtains default and matter is set for hearing on Feb. 19, 2013 to assess damages
  • Feb. 19, 2013, at hearing on damages,Defendant does not appear but Trial Court receives letter from him requesting continuance, which Trial Court grants with no further extensions of time
  • March 19, 2013, Defendant again does not appear and Court states it will grant default judgment of ~$40,000
  • After hearing, Trial Court receives letter from Defendant citing jury obligation and requesting another continuance
  • April 1, 2013, Trial Court confirms Defendant did not in fact have to report for jury duty and enters default judgment
  • April 3, 2013, Defendant appears by counsel and files vague motion to set aside one month later, which was denied

While the CoA acknowledged the policy of favoring trying cases on the merits, it could not ignore that Defendant failed to show excusable neglect. CoA further stated that a “lack of personal jurisdiction” argument, if made, would have fallen under Rule 60(B)(6) which was not cited by Defendant.

Ultimately, CoA affirmed default but the case is a rather extreme example of Defendant error in responding to a lawsuit and then asserting vague arguments in attempting to lift the default.

CoA: State had no authority to bring paternity action for stillborn baby

In what is an ultimately very sad case involving the stillborn birth of a baby to a barely teenage girl, the Court of Appeals found that neither the assignment of the matter to the State under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act or Indiana’s paternity statutes, provided an avenue for the State to bring an action to establish paternity. Here, the mother simply wanted to confirm who the father of her child was and was not seeking any other benefit or monetary amount.

Since Title IV-D’s purpose is to enforce support obligations and the paternity statutes are there to provide “proper care, maintenance, education, protection, support and opportunities” to the child, there was no interest or authority for the State to file an action for paternity. This did not mean, however, the mother could not do so on her own.

www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/05081401mgr.pdf.

CoA affirms denial of summary judgment to lawyer in legal malpractice case

This matter stems from a legal malpractice claim against a criminal attorney and mainly involves the concept that professional negligence may be nullified if allowing a claim to proceed would allow one to profit from his or her own criminal acts. The CoA limited the application of this rule.

Here, “Beal [the attorney/defendant] represented Blinn [the client/plaintiff] in a federal criminal action, despite Beal’s limited experience with federal litigation, his unfamiliarity with the legal construction of a federal proffer session, its purpose and its consequences, and his failure to convey a request for further interviews as part of the proffer session to Blinn.” The resulting federal proffer session snafu led to Blinn’s plea deal being revoked and him subsequently receiving a worse deal later on through a different attorney.

In arguing for summary judgment, Beal relied on the case of Rimert v. Mortell, 680 N.E.2d 867 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), trans. denied. In that case, a patient diagnosed as psychotic was discharged and went on to murder four people in South Carolina after which he was found guilty but mentally ill. His family then filed a claim for medical malpractice against the doctor who discharged him.

The Court of Appeals held in that case:

the rule against actions based upon or involving a plaintiff’s criminal act is correlative with Indiana’s public policy against permitting one to profit from his or her wrongdoing. Each embodies the principle that one who is responsible for the commission of a criminal or wrongful act must exclusively bear his or her share of the responsibility for the act, and may not evade that responsibility either through gaining some profit for the act or shifting liability for the act to another. We therefore hold it to be the public policy of this state that an individual who has been convicted of a crime should be precluded from imposing liability upon others, through a civil action, for the results of his or her own criminal conduct. Consequently, a person may not maintain an action if, in order to establish the cause of action, he or she must rely, in whole or in part, upon an illegal act or transaction to which he or she is a party or upon a violation by him or herself of the criminal laws.

Rimert, 680 NE 2d at 874.

The Court of Appeals distinguished Rimert from the instant matter in that the former held one could not essentially excuse his criminal acts (or profit thereform) by stating that the professional negligence caused or contributed to the criminal acts. Rather, when the alleged professional negligence occurred after the alleged criminal actions, as here, the policy was not applicable since it would in essence prevent any criminal defendant from maintaining a legal malpractice claim against his or her own attorney where the defendant was found or pleaded guilty.

www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/05071403par.pdf.

Bad faith claim against insurer survives summary judgment in IN SD

This claim arises out of the somewhat famous “wave ahead” case of Key v. Hamilton, 963 NE 2d 573 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012). In that case, a driver of a stopped truck waved a motorcyclist ahead to pass him after checking for traffic, failing to see an oncoming vehicle, and the motorcycle collided with the oncoming vehicle.  The waving party was insured for $250,000 by American Family.

At trial, the injured party obtained a verdict for $990,00 against the waving party. American Family tendered its policy limits of $250,000 plus prejudgment interest. The driver subsequently filed for bankruptcy and the trustee filed suit for bad faith against American Family on behalf of the bankruptcy estate to recover for the excess judgment.

During the bad faith case, discovery showed that

American Family’s counsel evaluated the injured party’s claim at $110,000, but never offered the reserve amount of $100,000.00 during negotiations. Likewise, despite Mr. Hamilton’s demand that was equal to the policy limit, American Family still refused to pay this amount, even with knowing that Mr. Hamilton’s medical expenses alone were almost twice that amount. In addition, the Trustee presents evidence that American Family failed to fully investigate the claim or dispute Mr. Hamilton’s injuries.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, held that the evidence did justify summary judgment on the claim for punitive damages but that the evidence was not sufficient to grant summary judgment on the issue of bad faith. In so ruling, Judge Pratt cited that the duty of good faith forces the insurer to not only consider its monetary interests in deciding whether to settle, but also the risk that the insured will bear the risk of an excess verdict. Certain Underwriters of Lloyd’s v. GEN. ACC. INS., 909 F. 2d 228, 231-32 (7th Cir. 1990). Judge Pratt found that the question of whether the “gamble” is unreasonable under these circumstances is a question for the finder of fact.

https://ecf.insd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?12012cv0859-90.

UIM policy could be set off by Worker’s Compensation recovery, but not below state minimum

The CoA’s opinion is filed in the ever-expanding catalog of cases relating to under-insured motorist (“UIM”) coverage.

The issue is relevant in light of the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Justice v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., 4 N.E.3d 1171, 2014 Ind. LEXIS 196 (Ind. 2014). In fact, the Court of Appeals relies on that decision in reaching its conclusion here.

In this case, the spectacularly surnamed Christine Anderson was in a motor vehicle accident during the course of her employment. The at-fault driver had $25,000 in coverage, which was paid in full, and Anderson received $81,166.15 in worker’s compensation (“WC”) benefits since she was on the job. She had at the time a UIM policy with limits of $100,000. Thus, she sought $75,000 for the remaining UIM coverage.

Indiana Insurance argued that the UIM policy limit was set off by the WC benefit since it exceeded the $75,000 in remianing UIM coverage. This would mean that coverage would be reduced from the policy limits rather than the total damages (e.g. if Anderson had $300,000 in damages, she argues that the amount she received in WC benefits should be deducted from the $300 number instead of the $75K in coverage).

The Court of Appeals sided with Indiana Insurance on this point, holding that policies generally provide for when a setoff is to be made against damages rather than limits of liability and the use of the word damages in other areas of the policy is evidence that the insurer did not intend for the setoff to apply to damages if another word is used.

Paragraph E mentions “element of loss” and does not mention damages. Further, the portion of the Policy addressing underinsured motorists coverage uses the term “damages” on other occasions. Also, similar to Am. Econ., Paragraph E falls under the section titled “LIMIT OF LIABILITY.”  Unlike Tate, the Policy defines an “[u]nderinsured motor vehicle” as one for which the sum of the limits of liability under all bodily injury liability bonds or policies applicable at the time of the accident is either: “1. Less than the limit of liability for this coverage; or 2. Reduced by payments to persons, other than ‘insureds’, injured in the accident to less than the limit of liability for this coverage.” Appellant’s Appendix at 163. Based upon Paragraph E, we cannot say that the trial court erred to the extent that it reduced the amount Anderson received from worker’s compensation from the Policy limit.

The Court of Appeals did however hold that under the recently published Justice case, the insurer could not apply WC benefits to reduce the UIM benefit below the state mandated minimum of $50,000.  In citing that case, the Court found the following language dispositive: “[i]f [the underinsured motorist] had carried the required amount of liability insurance, [the insured] would have received $50,000, and the purpose of our uninsured/underinsured motorist statute is to put him in that position.” 4 N.E.3d at 1179. Thus, no matter whatever the WC benefit Anderson received, she was entitled to $50,000 in UIM coverage.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment by the trial court on the issue of the setoff but reversed summary judgment on the issue of the recoverable UIM benefit.

www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/05021401ebb.pdf.

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