INDIANAPOLIS (Legal Newsline) – The Indiana Supreme Court has refused to hold a pizza place liable under certian claims for a fatal crash allegedly caused by one of its delivery drivers - a basic and logical decision that prevents turmoil for employers, an attorney for the restaurant says.
"We are reassured by the court’s decision," Rodney L. Scott, appellee attorney in Sedam v. 2JR Pizza Enterprises, told Legal Newsline.
"It reaffirms a basic and logical concept that we believed, like the court as it turns out, had been established for years in Indiana. Altering years of established law and practices that have grown out of that legal concept would have created significant turmoil for Indiana lawyers as they learned to deal with unnecessary and duplicative claims and the legal implications arising out of them."
Scott, a member at Waters, Tyler, Hofmann & Scott in New Albany, Indiana, helped 2JR Pizza fight claims of employer vicarious liability and negligent hiring.
The Indiana Supreme Court in an order handed down Oct. 31 affirmed a trial court's partial grant of summary judgment in favor of the pizza chain, allowing only the negligent hiring claim under the long established doctrine of "respondeat superior," or "let the master answer," to proceed.
The high court cited its own pivotal 1974 case and ruled that an employer who admits an employee acted within the course and scope of his or her employment, in the absence of any special circumstances, may be held liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Negligent hiring claims are precluded under that doctrine.
That 1974 case, Tindall v. Enderle, that established respondeat superior in Indiana still holds, according to the high court's decision.
"When an employer admits that an employee was acting within the course and scope of his or her employment, the employer may only be held liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior, and thus the plaintiff is precluded from also bringing a negligent hiring claim in most circumstances," the decision said.
The Sedam case stems from an auto accident Aug. 24, 2012, when the Dodge Stratus driven by Pizza Hut delivery employee Amanda Parker collided with the rear of a scooter driven by David Hamblin, according to information from the high court's decision. The collision tossed Hamblin onto the road, where he was run over and killed by another motorist, Ralph Bliton, the ruling states.
Soon after, co-personal representatives in Hamblin's estate, Dale Sedam, Kim Sedam and Bryan Norris, filed a wrongful death suit against Parker, Bliton and 2JR Pizza Enterprises, which does business as Pizza Hut. As the case progressed, 2JR Pizza admitted that Parker had been acting within the scope of her employment when the accident occurred and the Hamblin estate subsequently amended its lawsuit to allege that 2JR had negligently hired Parker.
In an amicus brief filed with the court, the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association suggested there may be constitutional issues created by the case over a 1995 amendment of the Indiana's Comparative Fault Act. That amendment supports employer fault based on negligent hiring.
Scott declined to comment about that amicus brief.
"We are probably not in the best position to answer for why the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association chose to participate in this appeal," Scott said. "To be fair, we opposed its substantive arguments and are content to accept its brief as its explanation of why it chose to be involved in this case."
Scott also said Indiana Legal Foundation’s amicus brief filed in the case "does a great job of outlining the public policy concerns at issue in this case."
In March 2015, defendants in the case filed a motion for partial summary judgment in Jefferson Circuit Court, claiming the trial court should enter judgment in their favor for admitting that Parker was acting as a 2JR employee. That admission, the appellees claimed, meant 2JR was liable only for negligence under the theory of respondeat superior. The trial court granted the motion.
Hamblin’s estate appealed and the Indiana Court of Appeals found in favor of the estate, ruling in September 2016 that Indiana law does not always preclude plaintiffs from pursuing negligent hiring and other negligence claims under respondeat superior. The Indiana Supreme Court's ruling Oct. 31 reversed the appeals court decision.
In addition to Tindall v. Enderle, there have been other rulings by the Indiana Supreme Court since Tindall that have fleshed out the doctrine of respondeat superior. In June 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court handed down a decision in Barnett v. Clark, ruling that vicarious liability claims should be limited.
Indiana's high court also, in December 2015 in Knighten v. East Chicago Housing Authority, reversed a lower court ruling, saying there was a question of fact about whether a security guard had acted within the scope of his employment.
Meanwhile, Sedam v. 2JR Pizza Enterprises isn't over, Scott said.
"This case will now return to the trial court so the parties can complete discovery, present at least one other issue to the Judge for consideration and, if necessary, seek a jury’s determination about who was at fault for the accident," Scott said.
"My clients continue to deny liability."