Articles Posted in Construction Accidents

The Indiana Supreme Court recently affirmed a trial court’s judgment dismissing a personal injury lawsuit based upon issue preclusion and Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act. In Davidson v. State, Kathryn Davidson (“Davidson”) sustained severe injuries and was rendered a quadriplegic when she was ejected from the passenger seat of a semi-truck that crashed into an overpass-bridge pier in a construction zone on I-69. Davidson’s boyfriend, Brandon Nicholson, fell asleep while driving the semi-truck for his employer, J Trucking, LLC. Davidson filed a lawsuit against J Trucking, LLC and obtained a $3.2 million judgment after a bench trial. Thereafter, Davidson filed a second lawsuit, for the same injuries and damages, against the State of Indiana and five other defendants (“the Defendants”) for their role in the construction of the section of I-69 where the truck crash occurred, including their alleged failure to appropriately place barriers in front of the bridge pier.

In the second lawsuit, the Defendants moved to have Davidson’s case dismissed based upon, among other things, the legal doctrine of issue preclusion, which prevents a party who has previously litigated an issue and lost from relitigating the same issue in a second lawsuit when that issue was necessarily decided in the prior lawsuit by a court of competent jurisdiction. In applying issue preclusion against a party, courts must consider whether the party had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the first lawsuit and whether it would be unfair under the circumstances for issue preclusion to be used against the party in the second lawsuit. Here, the trial court dismissed Davidson’s second lawsuit with prejudice, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed finding issue preclusion did not apply, and the Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer.

Ultimately, the Indiana Supreme Court held Davidson’s claims in her second lawsuit were barred by issue preclusion based on its interpretation of Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act. Under the Comparative Fault Act, a trier of fact must consider the fault of all persons who caused or contributed to cause an injury or death and apportion 100% of the damages in the case between parties and nonparties. Nonparties are persons who caused or contributed to cause an alleged injury or death but who have not been joined in a lawsuit as defendants. A defendant may raise a nonparty defense to have fault attributed to a nonparty, thereby lessening any fault attributable to the defendant, and in turn, any judgment that must be paid. However, for fault to be attributed to a nonparty, the Comparative Fault Act requires the nonparty be named in the lawsuit.

Imagine a situation where a general contractor enters into a contract with a property owner to build a new manufacturing facility. The general contractor hires various subcontractors to perform different tasks on the project. During the performance of one of those tasks, a subcontractor’s employee is seriously injured through no fault of his own by an act a simple safety measure could have prevented. Although the worker’s injury would be covered by worker’s compensation through his employer, he may also have a remedy against the general contractor. Who is ultimately responsible for the worker’s injury and how might this scenario be decided by an Indiana court?

Under Indiana law, ordinarily, a general contractor owes no duty to its subcontractors’ employees. See Bagley v. Insight Commc’ns Co., L.P., 658 N.E.2d 584, 586 (Ind. 1995). Therefore, “when a subcontractor fails to provide a reasonably safe workspace, the general contractor will not incur liability for employee injury . . . The rationale behind this rule is that a general contractor has little to no control over the means and manner a subcontractor employs to complete the work.” Ryan v. TCI Architects / Engineers / Contractors, Inc., 72 N.E.3d 908, 913 (Ind. 2017). This general rule, however, is subject to five exceptions, Bagley, 658 N.E.2d at 586, one of which is probably the most litigated in these situations: whether a contractual obligation imposes a ‘specific duty’ on the general contractor. Ryan, 72 N.E.3d at 913.

The assumption of contractual duty exception applies when a general contractor’s contract with the project owner “affirmatively evinces an intent to assume a duty of care.” Stumpf v. Hagerman Const. Corp., 863 N.E.2d 871, 876 (Ind.Ct.App. 2007). A general contractor’s contractually assumed duty “exposes the general contractor to potential liability for a negligence claim where no such liability would have otherwise existed.” Ryan, 72 N.E.3d at 914. In other words, the general contractor is charged with providing an additional layer of responsibility that would not exist without a contractual promise. See Harris v. Kettlehut Constr., Inc., 468 N.E.2d 1069, 1076 (Ind.Ct.App. 1984) (general contractor and subcontractor jointly liable for duty assumed by each party).

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