Woman Suffering Injury in Fall Is Allowed to Proceed in Her Case After Indiana Court of Appeals Finds a Genuine Issue of Material Fact and Judicial Bias

Penny Chappey and her husband Gregory Chappey (the Chappeys) sued a tow truck driver, Joseph Paul Storey (Storey), and his company for injuries Penny suffered when she fell from the flatbed of Storey’s tow truck while he was loading and securing her vehicle. Penny was at a CVS with her bulldog puppy when her SUV wouldn’t start. She called for a tow and Storey responded. Penny asked Storey whether her puppy could stay in her vehicle, and Storey said yes. Storey got into Penny’s vehicle to put her vehicle in neutral and Penny’s puppy was jumping all over him.

After Storey loaded Penny’s vehicle, Penny got onto the flatbed of the tow truck. While Penny said Storey asked her to get on the flatbed to restrain her puppy so that Storey could put her vehicle in park, Storey said he did not ask Penny to get onto the flatbed, did not know Penny was on the flatbed, and believed Penny being on the flatbed was in violation of industry standards. After Penny restrained her puppy on the flatbed, she pivoted to walk towards the back of the flatbed and fell several feet to the ground, suffering injuries. While Penny didn’t know exactly why she fell, she noted it was a tight space to traverse without the ability to have her feet side by side.

In personal injury negligence claims in Indiana, claimants must prove (1) the defendant owed the claimant a duty, (2) the defendant breached that duty, and (3) compensable injuries proximately caused by the defendant’s breach of duty. Storey and his company moved for summary judgment arguing that there existed no genuine issue of material fact as to proximate cause, which is generally a question of fact for the jury, because Penny did not know what caused her to fall. The trial court held a hearing and three months later issued an order granting summary judgment for the defendants.

At the hearing, the trial court stated, among other things: “I wouldn’t be suing in this situation, but I’m not a litigious person,” Chappeys’ lawsuit was not a “valuable use of limited judicial resources,” “I know what happened without even hearing from anybody what happened,” “[Penny] probably was showing [Storey] how to do the stuff,” “just because people file suits and a lot of them get resolved… doesn’t mean that the Plaintiffs should be doing what they are doing,” “[this case is] not really important, because we have a person who doesn’t know how they were injured… [c]laiming [it’s] somebody else’s fault,” and “I’m a little bit offended… we’ve got someone that doesn’t say how they got injured, but they want to sue somebody.”

The trial court stated in its order, among other things: “[t]he civil litigation system in Indiana is broken,” “[t]he… solution is to simply banish certain legal fictions (insurance companies) from the Courts,” “the other solution is… allocating costs regularly and aggressively for the prevailing party,” “[i]t simply cannot stand that we allow a system to exist where anybody can sue anyone at any time…,” “case law strongly and severely discourages summary judgment, ostensibly because, ‘people are entitled to their day in Court,’” “[n]o rational person, on their own accord, would have pursued this claim,” “[w]ill Plaintiffs (insurance company) appeal this finding and the Court’s award of costs or will it tacitly collude…?” and “our civil litigation process has been and remains a farce overrun by legal fictions.”

In its decision, the Court of Appeals first found that summary judgment for defendants was improper because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to the proximate cause of Penny’s fall. While recognizing there are cases in which summary judgment was properly granted when the claimants did not know why they fell (e.g., a plaintiff not knowing why she fell off a step inside a store, a claimant not knowing what caused him to fall in a parking lot, and a claimant not knowing why she fell in stepping from a curb), the Court found the facts in this case did not lead to only one single inference. The Court noted that, while one inference is Penny fell because she wasn’t being careful, another reasonable inference is she fell because she was placed in an unreasonable position of peril in navigating a tight space elevated from the ground at the request of Storey.

The Court of Appeals also found the Chappeys were denied due process by the trial court, and as such, were entitled to a new judge on remand of the case. Under the law, an impartial judge is an essential element of due process, and a trial judge violates due process when the judge combines the role of judge and advocate. Judges must be impartial and refrain from making unnecessary comments and remarks. While the law presumes judges are unbiased, a party can overcome that presumption by showing a judge has a personal prejudice for or against a party. A party must show the judge’s conduct was impartial and prejudiced that party’s case. Here, the Court of Appeals concluded the judge failed to preside over the case as a neutral, impartial decision maker and in doing so effectively, and unconstitutionally, torpedoed the Chappeys’ case.

You can read the full opinion here.

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