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.