Supreme Court accepts case raising questions of collateral estoppel and claim splitting

A unanimous Indiana Supreme Court has granted transfer to a personal injury case brought by a severely and permanently injured woman which is raising questions of whether subsequent litigation can be filed against a group of defendants when other defendants have already been held liable.

The case, Kathryn Davidson v. State of Indiana, et al., 21A-CT-1516, was the only one the justices accepted among 21 petitions to transfer for the week ending Sept. 16.

In Eric S. Rambo v. Liane K. Rambo, 21A-DC-2427, the Supreme Court split with Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Christopher Goff voting to grant transfer, but not writing separately explaining their vote.

Justice Derek Molter abstained from participating in the transfer decision for two cases he adjudicated while on the Court of Appeals of Indiana. The first case, Joshua Edward Ptak v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-2386, was a memorandum decision, and the second, Charles V. Petrunak v. Volunteers of America of Indiana, Inc., et al., 21A-PL-1897, concluded with an order dismissing the appeal.

In Davidson, the plaintiff was a passenger in a semi-truck that was traveling in Monroe County in April 2018. The driver of the vehicle fell asleep and, as a result, collided with a bridge pier of an overpass. Davidson is now a C-6 incomplete quadriplegic.

Davidson sent a tort claim notice in August 2018 to the state of Indiana and the Indiana Department of Transportation alleging her injuries were caused, in part, by their negligence in the road construction. The state subsequently denied her claim.

Davidson then pursued a negligence action in Lake County against the trucking company in December 2018. She won a $3.24 million judgment.

In March 2020, Davidson filed a negligence lawsuit in Monroe County against the state, INDOT, I-69 Development Partners, LCC; DLZ Indiana, LLC; Aztec Engineering Group, Inc.; and Walsh Construction Company II, LLC. Monroe Circuit Court dismissed the complaint, finding the claims were barred by collateral estoppel and the prohibition against claim splitting.

The Court of Appeals panel reversed.

The appellate panel ruled although Davidson’s Lake County and Monroe County lawsuits arise from the same accident, each requires different proof as to the defendants’ negligence and liability. In addition, the court found the claim splitting preclusion does not apply because Davidson is not filing multiple lawsuits against the same defendants.

After the petition to transfer was filed, the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana filed an amicus curiae brief , asking the Supreme Court to accept the case.

Plaintiff’s effort to prosecute the present action against different defendants but for the same damages cannot be harmonized with Indiana’s bar against claim splitting and the doctrine of non-mutual defensive collateral estoppel,” DTCI argued in its brief. “Her claims cannot be sustained under any public policy rationales. Transfer is needed to clarify this issue for future litigants and Courts facing similar circumstances.”

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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