Justices consider whether woman who won $3.2M negligence judgment can sue more defendants

After a severe auto accident left her quadriplegic, an Indiana woman won a $3.24 million verdict against the trucking company involved in the collision. Now, the Indiana Supreme Court must decide whether she can sue additional defendants for their alleged roles in the same accident.

The high court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in Kathryn Davidson v. State of Indiana, et al., 22S-CT-318, to which it previously granted transfer. Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justices Christopher Goff and Derek Molter heard arguments from the bench while Justices Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter, both sick, listened remotely and texted in questions that Rush read to the attorneys.

At issue are two cases filed by Kathryn Davidson, who became a C-6 quadriplegic after an April 2018 accident involving Brandon Nicholson, who fell asleep at the wheel of a semitrailer and collided into the bridge pier of an overpass. Davidson sent a tort claim notice to the state, which was denied, and subsequently sued Nicholson’s employer, J Trucking LLC.

The case against J Trucking proceeded to a bench trial in Lake County, where the company is incorporated. The judge ultimately found the trucking company 100% at fault and entered judgment of $3,237,696 in Davidson’s favor. Davidson later settled for $725,000 with J Trucking’s insurer.

Davidson then filed a second negligence suit in Monroe County, where the accident had occurred, against the state, the Indiana Department of Transportation, I-69 Development Partners LLC, DLZ Indiana LLC, Aztec Engineering Group Inc. and Walsh Construction Company II LLC.

The Monroe Circuit Court dismissed the second complaint with prejudice, but the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed in April. The lower appellate court determined the trial court erred in finding Davidson’s claims in the second complaint were barred by collateral estoppel.

Before the justices on Tuesday, attorney William Beyers agreed.

Beyers, representing Davidson, presented the justices with three reasons for finding that the trial court erred.

First, he said the unique facts of the case did not warrant dismissal due to collateral estoppel because, after the tort claim was denied, the state withheld 15,000 documents. That, Beyers said, made the viability of a lawsuit against the defendants in the second complaint unknown at the time of Davidson’s suit against J Trucking.

Second, pointing to Sullivan v. Am. Cas. Co. of Reading, Pa., 605 N.E.2d 134 (Ind. 1992), Beyers noted Davidson prevailed in her first complaint, so the defense of collateral estoppel cannot apply.

Finally, the trial court determined the claims raised in Davidson’s second complaint could’ve been litigated, but the standard for collateral estoppel is whether those claims were actually litigated and determined, he said.

But Benjamin Jones, assistant section chief of civil appeals in the Indiana Office of the Attorney General, urged the justices to affirm the trial court and find that Davidson’s second complaint was barred.

Jones pointed to the Comparative Fault Act, which requires the factfinder to allocate 100% of fault among all culpable parties and nonparties and then allocate damages proportionately. Here, he argued, the Lake County court found J Trucking 100% at fault and allocated damages based on that culpability, thus fulfilling the purpose of the act.

Throughout the argument, the justices questioned the attorneys on issues of fairness and recovery.

Rush, for example, noted that Davidson suffered “catastrophic injuries,” leaving her in a nursing home, collecting government benefits and unable to spend time with her family. Given those circumstances, the chief asked Jones whether Davidson should be “penalized by strategic decisions early in the case” — namely, the decision to pursue a case against J Trucking alone.

Jones said no, pointing to the tort claim notice that Davidson sent to the state. In addition to alleging negligence on the part of the state, the notice named Walsh Construction, a defendant to the second suit, as a witness.

Thus, he argued, “Davidson was fully aware that she had other claims against other parties” aside from J Trucking but chose not to pursue those claims in her first lawsuit.

To that point, Molter asked Jones whether the defendants in the second case would be getting a windfall from J Trucking’s failure to name nonparties pursuant to the Comparative Fault Act. But Jones said that failure was only one side of the coin — the other side, he said, was Davidson’s duty of due diligence to identify causes of injury and pursue those claims.

As for Beyers’ arguments, Molter raised the specter of double recovery, asking whether Davidson could recover the same judgment from each defendant. Beyers said no, arguing that if the state were found completely at fault in a second trial, it would be rendered a credit from the payment J Trucking had already made.

Molter pressed that issue further, asking whether Davidson could collect the full $3.24 million from J Trucking only if it were 100% at fault. Beyers again said no, saying the Lake County court issued a “general judgment” without a specific finding under the Comparative Fault Act, so the question of fault would not be a consideration.

Later, Beyers told the court that the parties did not consider the trial court’s judgment to be “valid.” Rush raised her eyebrows at that response, and Beyers clarified that he did not view the judgment as “valid” because the parties later voluntarily settled.

Both Slaughter and Massa texted in questions for Beyers, with Slaughter asking about facts still to be discovered to recover against the defendants and Massa asking about the issue of due diligence. Goff asked questions of both parties related to State ex rel. Highway Dep’t v. Snyder, 594 N.E.2d 783 (Ind. 1992).

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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