COA: Negligence claim rightly denied in fatal heart attack wreck

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment to a man’s estate in a negligence lawsuit, finding his incapacity to drive due to a heart attack was not reasonably foreseeable.

While driving to Bloomington for Thanksgiving with Wanda Denson as a passenger in his vehicle, Delmer Dillard suddenly declared he was not feeling well, slumped over and passed out. The vehicle he was driving then crashed into a house off State Road 252 near Morgantown, severely injuring Denson, resulting in more than $400,000 in medical bills. Dillard died at the scene and was later confirmed to have suffered a massive heart attack while driving.

Dillard had suffered another heart attack six weeks earlier and was prescribed home health care. A follow-up appointment found Dillard was doing well with no chest pain. He was not informed by medical professionals that he was unable to drive based on hospital records, cardiologist notes, stress test, and functional capacity.

Five months after the accident, Denson filed a negligence complaint against the Dillard’s estate and further sought uninsured/underinsured motorist benefits from her own automobile insurer. The estate defended that Dillard was faced with a sudden medical emergency which was so imminent as to leave no time for deliberation or action. The Indiana Trial Lawyers Association also joined the case on Denson’s behalf.

Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. A trial court entered judgment in favor of the estate, finding it successfully negated the element of breach on Denson’s negligence claim.

On appeal, Denson argued the trial court erred in its ruling favoring the estate. However, the appellate court found that under the narrow and specific circumstances of the case, designated evidence negated the element of breach in Wanda Denson v. The Estate of Delmer Dillard and Indiana Farmers Mutual Insurance Company,18A-CT-1112.

Specifically, the appellate court found no need to formally recognize a specific doctrine or defense, determining that the application of general negligence principles adequately addressed the case. It also found that the estate made a prima facie case on the issue and that the evidence designated by Denson failed to create a genuine issue of material fact.

“While Denson designated evidence that shows that Dillard was prescribed medication for his heart, and that his prior heart attack would have put him on notice that he suffered from coronary artery disease, this evidence does not equate to knowledge of peril or create an inference that a reasonable man in Dillard’s position would have altered his behavior regarding driving,” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the court.

“This is especially true in light of the undisputed lack of driving restrictions or warnings not to drive by trained medical personnel. Moreover, there is no evidence that Dillard suffered any symptoms prior to his decision to drive on November 20, which would have alerted him of the impending physical incapacity.”

Thus, the appellate court concluded that the estate met its burden as summary judgment movant to affirmatively negate the element of breach on Denson’s negligence claim, finding evidence designated by Denson to be insufficient to create a genuine issue.

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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