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Plaintiff’s Attempt to Expand Defendant’s Liability Foiled by Partial Summary Judgment

January 22, 2019

The Johnson & Bell trial team of Shareholder, Edward W. Hearn, and Associate, Catherine Breitweiser-Hurst, obtained partial summary judgment in favor of their food transportation client and one of its drivers.  The ruling in favor of Johnson & Bell’s clients is likely to have positive ramifications for defendants in the future as it eliminates a trial tactic used by plaintiffs to expand a defendant's liability by seeking “inflated” compensatory damages at the conclusion of trials.

This case arises out of a December 2015 collision between the defendant’s truck and the driver of an automobile. The truck’s driver also is being defended by Johnson & Bell.  The driver veered into plaintiff’s lane as he was looking at his driver’s side-view mirror, coming into contact with plaintiff’s car.  Plaintiff filed a complaint that brought two counts, one against the truck driver and the other against the food transportation company. The count against the food transportation company presented two alternative theories of liability: vicarious liability under respondeat superior and negligent entrustment of the truck by the company to its driver. After the parties had exchanged some written discovery, Johnson & Bell filed an amended answer on behalf of its clients in which our client admitted that the driver was at fault for causing the accident; that he was an employee at the time it occurred; and that the company could be vicariously liable for his conduct should plaintiff succeed in proving damages.

Filing the amended answer served two purposes: 1) it helped streamline our defense of the case to contesting the extent of the injuries and damages plaintiff claims; and 2) it laid the foundation for filing the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, which sought judgment on plaintiff’s negligent entrustment claim against the food transportation company on the grounds that these admissions precluded plaintiff from pressing this claim in tandem with her vicarious liability claim. The primary legal basis for the Motion was a relatively recent Indiana Supreme Court case, Sedam v. 2JR Pizza Enters., LLC, 84 N.E.3d 1174 (Ind. 2017). There, the court indicated that once an employer makes the necessary admissions to subject it to potential vicarious liability for an employee’s tortious conduct, the plaintiff is generally prohibited from simultaneously pursuing direct claims against the employer such as negligent hiring, retention, or entrustment.

After a round of briefing in which plaintiff’s counsel marshalled a host of counter-arguments that Johnson & Bell addressed one-by-one, the trial court hosted a hearing on defense’s Motion on December 18, 2018. The court took the Motion under advisement at the hearing’s end but then entered a written order granting the Motion in favor of our clients the same day.

Outcome: By obtaining partial summary judgment, defendants now have a basis for resisting future (and often exhaustive) discovery requests, which reduces the risk that potentially prejudicial evidence regarding training, company policies and procedures, or other accidents involving this specific driver or other company employees will be admitted into evidence.  A trend among many plaintiff’s attorneys handling personal injury matters involves issuing burdensome discovery requests to defendants that address not only the accident from which a case arises, but also other accidents in which the defendants may have been involved.  The purpose of these requests is to build an evidentiary foundation for a punitive damages claim; to have this prejudicial evidence admitted at trial; and then to dismiss the punitive damages claim at the end of their presentation of evidence in the hope that a jury will seize on this evidence and enter an “enhanced” award of compensatory damages on a remaining negligence claim. Previously, Johnson & Bell has successfully sought Motions for Partial Summary Judgment in similar cases to fend off these plaintiff trial tactics.  Now, with the Sedam ruling, defendants have a shield to these tactics and should be even more successful combating plaintiff tactics in future defenses.

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