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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
July 19, 1997
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State of Indiana Negligent Where Dust from Shoulder Cleaning Blinded Young Motorcyclist
Minnesota Contractor and Subcontractor Had No Duty for Detour Route Outside Construction Zone
Study Shows Ignition Interlocks Decrease the Likelihood of Repeat DUI/DWI Offenses
Courses offered on Heavy-Duty Truck Systems and Computer Simulation of Vehicle Dynamics

Highway Safety Publications Catalog. Articles on Road Engineering, Road Maintenance & Management, and Injury Litigation. Information and consulting for the Automobile and Road User, as well as for law professionals in accident investigations.
TranSafety's free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and highway safety publications catalog. See our free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and a highway safety publications catalog.


State of Indiana Negligent Where Dust from Shoulder Cleaning Blinded Young Motorcyclist

A high school senior riding his motorcycle home from school hit the back of a semi- tractor trailer and received serious injuries. Indiana Department of Transportation crews were cleaning the shoulder of the highway when the collision happened; this process created a cloud of dust in the area. Suing the State of Indiana (State) and the owner and operator of the trailer, the motorcyclist and his parents claimed that negligence by the State caused the collision. A jury verdict favored the plaintiffs. The State appealed, and the Court of Appeals of Indiana remanded the case, reversing the trial court decision on faulty jury instructions.

In a second trial, the jury again found in favor of the motorcyclist and his parents. The State appealed; this time, however, the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed. The appeals court found the trial court had not erred in (1) instructing the jury about the motorcyclist's duty of care, (2) refusing to allow evidence concerning the motorcyclist's failure to wear protective gear, and (3) treating the plaintiff's claims for personal-injury damages to the motorcyclist and for loss-of-services damages to the parents as separate damages for purposes of applying the $300,000 tort-liability cap.

THE COLLISION

About 2:30 p.m. on October 2, 1981, Jeffrey Eaton was riding his motorcycle home from school on U.S. Highway 421. He was a high school senior. On this afternoon, State personnel were "clipping" the shoulder of the highway, a procedure that maintained the highway's drainage system. Crews used a grader to pull dirt, gravel, and other roadside debris onto the road. Subsequently, a loader transferred the debris to a dump truck for hauling away. Finally, a sweeper would clear away the remaining dirt and gravel. The process created dust, although later testimony differed considerably on how much dust was in the air at the time of Eaton's collision.

Warning signs confronted Eaton as he approached the clipping operation. Traveling north, he also noticed dirt and dust on the highway. As he topped a slight hill, Eaton slowed from his travel speed of 40 to 45 miles per hour. Although Eaton does not remember clearly what happened just before the collision, the evidence indicated he ran into the back of the semi-tractor trailer in front of him. The driver of the truck testified he was following flagger directions and may have been slowing or stopped at the time of the collision. The trucker heard a "bang," got out of the truck, and found Eaton and the motorcycle behind the truck. The young motorcyclist received "severe neurological injuries."

TRIAL COURT DECISIONS

Eaton and his parents sued the owner of the truck, the driver of the truck, and the State of Indiana. The court dismissed the case against the trucking company and the truck driver. In the first trial of the case against the State, the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed, citing a trial court error in jury instructions. On remand, another trial in the Ripley Circuit Court resulted in a jury decision favorable to the plaintiffs. The jury awarded Eaton's parents (as his legal guardians) $449,280 for the motorcyclist's personal injuries and, in addition, awarded them $101,178.64 for the loss of their son's services. In compliance with Indiana's Tort Claims Act, the court reduced the former award to $300,000. The loss-of-services award remained as awarded by the jury.

APPEALS COURT DECISION

Appealing the second decision, the State claimed the trail court erred in (1) "instructing the jury on Jeffrey's duty of care as a motorist," (2) "prohibiting it from introducing evidence of Jeffrey's failure to use protective eyewear including a full helmet," and (3) "refusing to apply a single statutory cap of Three Hundred Thousand Dollars ($300,000) to the jury verdicts in the Eaton's favor." The court considered each point of appeal separately.

Jury Instructions

The Eaton jury received instructions on a motorist's duty of ordinary care. The State argued the motorcyclist had a duty to use extraordinary care at the site where the collision happened, because the collision occurred in a work zone. In support of this argument, the State cited Indiana Code  9-4-1-33(b) which, at the time of the crash, provided:

When traffic control devices or flagmen are utilized at worksites on any public highway for traffic control, all motorists shall exercise extraordinary care to secure the mutual safety of all persons and motorists at the worksite.

To reverse the trial court's refusal to give the jury the State's requested instruction on extraordinary care, the appeals court needed to find that (1) the requested instruction was an accurate statement of law, (2) the evidence supported the requested instruction, (3) no other jury instruction covered the points of the requested instruction, and (4) the decision not to give the requested instruction adversely affected the complaining party's rights (Transport Ins. Co. v. Terrell Trucking, Inc. (1987), Ind.App., 509 N.E.2d 220, 224).

Addressing the issue of evidence supporting the requested instruction, the appellate court noted the testimony of plaintiffs' highway-safety expert Dr. Jack Humpries of the University of Tennessee. Humpries defined worksite as "the area where physically work is taking place." He added, "It doesn't include the entire stretch of roadway from the first sign to the last sign." The worksite here, according to Humpries, included only the area between the flaggers. Therefore, since the collision happened outside that area, Eaton was not in a worksite and not required by statute to exercise extraordinary care. The State's requested instruction on a motorist's duty of extraordinary care was not supported by the evidence, and the appellate court declined to find error in the trial court's decision to limit the instruction to ordinary care.

Evidence on Protective Headgear

The State argued that Eaton's duty "to keep and maintain a proper lookout" extended to a duty to wear a protective helmet that included a face shield.

The court acknowledged a motorist's duty to "see that which is clearly visible or which in the exercise of due care would be visible" (Thornton v. Pender (1978), 268 Ind. 540, 377 N.E.2d 613, 617). They also recognized that "[a] motorist is not required to be constantly prepared for every conceivable circumstance, and to insure against every accident" (Brock v. Walton (1983)), Ind.App., 456 N.E.2d 1087, 1091). Concluding that the motorcyclist was not required, as a matter of law, to foresee not being able to see because of dust, the court found Eaton breached no duty of care in not protecting against the dust. Moreover, at the time of the collision, no Indiana statute required that Eaton wear a helmet or protective eyewear while riding a motorcycle. The helmet law passed in 1967 was repealed in 1977, and Indiana enacted a new law in 1983. This collision happened in 1981.

The appellate court concluded Eaton had not breached his duty to maintain a proper lookout. On the other hand, he could not breach his duty to wear a helmet, since he had no such duty. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to let the State introduce evidence relating to Eaton's failure to wear either goggles or a helmet with protective eyewear.

Tort Liability Cap

The Indiana Tort Claims Act limits the liability of a governmental entity to $300,000. The Act provides:

The combined aggregate liability of all governmental entities and of all public employees acting within the scope of their employment and not excluded from liability under section 3 of this chapter, does not exceed three hundred thousand dollars ($300,000) for injury to or death of one (1) person in any one (1) occurrence . . .

The State contended that the award allotted Eaton's parents for loss of services was derivative. Specifically, that award existed only because Eaton's claim for personal- injury damages survived, and the loss-of-services award would not exist if the personal- injury claim had failed. Therefore, the State argued, the claims and the awards were not separate, and the combined total award should not exceed $300,000.

The appellate court found that Indiana's courts had not addressed the issue of derivative claims; however, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had. In Myers v. County of Lake, Ind. (30 F.3d 847, cert. denied, (7th Cir.1994)) a juvenile who attempted suicide in the County's detention center received a $500,000 award and his father received $400,000. The Lake County appeal court reduced the awards to a combined total of $300,000. The circuit court, however, held that there were two causes of action in Myers, and each allowed an award of $300,000. This court applied the same argument to the present case.

The court concluded the wrongful act that caused the injury to Eaton gave rise to two causes of action: the first allowed an award to Eaton for personal injuries and the second to his parents for loss of services. The two causes of action gave rise to separate rights of recovery, and the trial court did not err in declining to apply the statutory cap to the combined award.

In all instances, the appellate court affirmed the decisions of the trial court.

[For further reference, see State of Indiana v. Eaton (Ind.App. 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 659 North Eastern Reporter, 2nd Series, 232]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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