Indiana Court of Appeals Finds Son of Deceased Mother Limited to Damages Cap Under Indiana’s Wrongful Death Statute

Depending on the circumstances surrounding a fatality caused by another’s negligence, Indiana statutes may place limits on the monetary value of the human life taken when it comes to compensating the remaining family members for their loss.  Known as a “damage cap,” such limits may be triggered by the status of the negligent actor being a qualified healthcare provider or a governmental entity. Another damage cap depends on the dependency of those family members left behind, which is the topic of today’s blog.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled that the adult son of a decedent was not a dependent for purposes of Indiana’s General Wrongful Death Statute and that he could not pursue an alternative survival claim based upon the Defendants’ admissions of liability. In Franciscan ACO, Inc. v. Newman, Virginia Newman was being transported by an employee of Franciscan ACO, Inc. and/or Franciscan Alliance, Inc. (“Franciscan”). During the transport, Virginia and her wheelchair were not properly secured, and when the employee turned, Virginia and her wheelchair fell over. Virginia suffered injuries and subsequently died. Virginia’s son, Vaughn Newman, filed a lawsuit alleging wrongful death and asserting an alternative survival claim for his mother’s injuries.

Defendants filed an answer in which they admitted the factual allegations in Vaughn’s complaint as to negligence and that the negligence caused Virginia’s death. They thereafter filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Vaughn was not a dependent under Indiana’s General Wrongful Death Statute and was therefore limited to the $300,000 cap for loss of love and companionship under Indiana’s Adult Wrongful Death Statute. They also argued the evidence established that Defendants caused Virginia’s death, and therefore, Vaughn’s survival claim should be dismissed. After holding a hearing, the trial court denied the Defendants’ motion.

Under Indiana’s General Wrongful Death Statute, damages inure to the benefit of the decedent’s estate for payment of reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses, and the remainder of damages, which are uncapped, including damages for loss of love, care and affection, inure to the exclusive benefit of the surviving spouse, dependent children, or dependent next-of-kin. Ind. Code § 34-23-1-1. When an unmarried adult dies without dependents, a claim can be brought under Indiana’s Adult Wrongful Death Statute, which provides that damages for reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses inure to the decedent’s estate, while other damages, including loss of love and companionship, inure to the nondependent parent or nondependent child of the decedent. Ind. Code § 34-23-1-2. Importantly, under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute, damages for loss of love and companionship are capped at $300,000.00. Ind. Code § 34-23-1-2(e).

Vaughn lived with Virginia in her home since 2005 until her death in March 2018. Virginia paid her own mortgage, home insurance, property taxes, utilities, and food. Vaughn lived with Virginia rent-free but paid his own bills. Although Vaughn had access to Virginia’s checking account, which he used to pay for items on her behalf, he had his own checking account and did not need any assistance from Virginia to pay his bills. Vaughn took care of himself with Virginia not providing any services, such as cooking, cleaning or other daily living tasks. Virginia bought Vaughn two cars, which he would not have been able to afford and which he needed for work and transporting Virginia, but he testified that these were gifts. After 2001 neither Vaughn nor Virginia claimed each other as a dependent on their taxes, which they both filed separately. From 2013 to 2017 Vaughn testified he could afford to live on his own and did not have any financial needs from his mother but chose to live with her to take care of her. When Virginia’s health deteriorated in 2017, Vaughn took medical leave to help her, and Virginia reimbursed him for his lost wages.

Although dependency is not defined in the General Wrongful Death Statute, Indiana courts have established a standard for dependency requiring proof of (1) a need or necessity of support on the part of the alleged dependent and (2) the decedent’s contribution to such support. A decedent’s support or contribution to a beneficiary must amount to more than a service or benefit to which a beneficiary has become accustomed, and such must go beyond merely helping family members, even as to family members who have relied on that assistance. Here, as to the first consideration, the Court found Vaughn did not have an actual need or necessity for Virginia’s support. He was financially stable and paid his bills and expenses without assistance since 2005 and from 2013 to 2017 he had the means to maintain an independent household. As to the second consideration, the Court found Virginia’s support amounted to gifts, donations and acts of generosity. The Court therefore held that no reasonable jury could find that Vaughn was dependent on his mother.

Under Indiana’s Survival Act, an action for personal injuries to the decedent can be maintained to recover damages to the decedent resulting before the decedent’s death, including damages for pain and suffering, but only if the decedent died of causes other than those personal injuries. Ind. Code § 34-9-3-4. The damages in a survival action, which are uncapped, compensate the decedent’s estate for the decedent’s injuries, whereas damages for wrongful death compensate decedent’s survivors for the loss resulting from the decedent’s death. While parties can alternatively assert claims for wrongful death and survivorship, a party can only recover under one theory. Here, the Court found the Defendants’ admissions in their answer constituted a judicial admission conclusive and binding on the trier of fact. Since it was established that Virginia died as a result of the Defendants’ negligence, the Court found Vaughn could not show that Virginia died of causes other than Defendants’ negligence, and therefore, had no cause of action under the Survival Act.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

You can read the full opinion here.

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