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.
Here, the Defendants were neither parties nor named as nonparties in Davidson’s first lawsuit against J Trucking, LLC, and therefore, no fault was attributed to them. As such, although not explicit in the trial court’s judgment in the first lawsuit, the Indiana Supreme Court reasoned the trial court’s judgment necessarily included finding J Trucking, LLC 100% at fault for Davidson’s injuries. The Indiana Supreme Court noted that while the Comparative Fault Act does not apply to tort claims against governmental entities, like the State of Indiana, it nonetheless governs all current actions based on fault brought to recover damages for injury or death to a person (except for cases brought under Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act). Thus, in mixed-theory cases against non-government and government defendants, the Comparative Fault Act applies to require the trier of fact to apportion fault against all parties and nonparties for full apportionment of fault. Consequently, since 100% of the fault was necessarily attributed to J Trucking, LLC in the first lawsuit, issue preclusion thereby prevented any attribution of fault to Defendants in Davidson’s second lawsuit.
In finding issue preclusion applied to bar Davidson’s claims in her second lawsuit, the Court found that Davidson “really did lose” in her first case because by failing to name the Defendants she lost the ability to obtain an allocation of fault as to the Defendants. Importantly, the Court noted that, in lawsuits brought under the Comparative Fault Act, plaintiffs must name all alleged joint tortfeasors as defendants in one lawsuit or risk being precluded from obtaining a remedy against any unnamed tortfeasors in a subsequent lawsuit. In addition, the Court found Davidson had a full and fair opportunity to litigate against the Defendants in the first lawsuit and it was not unfair to apply issue preclusion to her claims in the second lawsuit. Lastly, the Court found no error in the trial court refusing to treat Defendants’ motions as motions for summary judgment and in dismissing her lawsuit with prejudice against refiling, with no due-process violation.
You can read the full opinion here.