Woman with quadriplegia secures reversal against INDOT in tractor-trailer accident case

A woman who suffered a severe spinal injury that left her quadriplegic has won a reversal after the Court of Appeals of Indiana found her lawsuit against the state of Indiana and the Indiana Department of Transportation did not create collateral estoppel and claim splitting.

While Kathryn Davidson was riding as a passenger in a tractor-trailer truck in April 2018 the driver, Brandon Nicholson, fell asleep and lost control of the semi. He then collided the 18-wheeler into a bridge pier of an overpass.

The accident left Davidson with severe and permanent injuries that resulted in her becoming a C-6 quadriplegic.

Davidson later sent a tort claim notice to the state and INDOT alleging that her injuries were caused in part by their negligence stemming from the road construction in the vicinity of the accident. However, the state denied her claim.

A negligence action was filed by Davidson in Lake County against J Trucking LLC, Nicholson’s employer, and Sasa Jankovic, the owner of J Trucking, who was later dismissed from the case. A 2019 bench trial resulted in judgment entered for Davidson against J Trucking for $3,237,696.

Davidson filed another negligence action in March 2020 – this time in Monroe County, where the accident occurred. The defendants all filed dispositive motions under either Trial Rule 12(B)(6) or 12(C). Following a hearing on the motions, the court dismissed Davidson’s complaint with prejudice and denied her subsequent motion to correct error.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana disagreed with the trial court’s dismissal, reversing for Davidson in Kathryn Davidson v. State of Indiana; Indiana Department of Transportation; I69 Development Partners, LLC; DLZ Indiana, LLC; Aztec Engineering Group, Inc.; and Walsh Construction Company II, LLC, 21A-CT-1516.

In comparing Davidson’s Lake County action from the case at hand, the COA found that collateral estoppel does not extend to matters that were not expressly adjudicated and can be inferred only by argument. It therefore found that the negligence and liability alleged by Davidson had not been previously litigated.

“While both actions arise from the same accident, each of the actions requires proof of an actor’s negligence and liability that the other does not,” Senior Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote. “As is clear from the record, the judgment in the Lake County Action was limited solely to the negligence of Nicholson, who was operating the truck as an agent of J Trucking. J Trucking and the Appellees are separate entities with separate interests. The Lake County Action and its resulting judgment against J Trucking decided nothing with regard to the Appellees’ alleged negligence and liability.

Even where collateral estoppel is applicable, the former adjudication is conclusive in the subsequent action only as to those issues that were actually litigated and determined therein,” he continued.

Additionally, the COA noted that Davidson did not lose in the Lake County action. It also agreed that the trial court erred by determining that the current action constitutes claim splitting.

“Based on the foregoing, we conclude the court erred by dismissing Davidson’s complaint by reason of collateral estoppel and claim splitting,” Friedlander concluded in the reversal.

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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