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Wysocki v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Indiana

October 15, 2014

JOSEPH WYSOCKI AND M. CARMEN WYSOCKI, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
v.
BARBARA A. JOHNSON AND WILLIAM T. JOHNSON, BOTH INDIVIDUALLY AND AS TRUSTEES OF THE BARBARA A. JOHNSON LIVING TRUST DATED 12-17-1996, Appellees (Defendants)

Appeal from the Lake Superior Court, No. 45D04-0805-CT-92. The Honorable Gerald N. Svetanoff, Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 45A03-1309-CT-385.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Shaun T. Olsen, OlsenCampbell Ltd., Merrillville, Indiana.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: Katherine A. Brown-Henry, Cline Farrell Christie & Lee, P.C., Indianapolis, Indiana.

Rush, Chief Justice. Dickson, Rucker, David, and Massa, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 601

Rush, Chief Justice.

Even when a plaintiff proves a predicate crime under the Crime Victims Relief Act (CVRA), the trial court has discretion not to award exemplary damages when it thinks the conduct is not egregious enough to warrant punishment. And when a plaintiff pleads several alternative grounds for relief, the trial court has similar discretion not to impose CVRA liability at all, even when it awards compensatory damages under a different theory. Accordingly,

Page 602

the trial court here acted within its discretion to compensate Plaintiffs for their common-law damages, while also refusing to award attorney fees or exemplary damages under the CVRA. We granted transfer to clarify that point and reiterate several principles about CVRA liability. We affirm the trial court, though for different reasons than the Court of Appeals.

Background Facts and Procedural History

This case comes before us again after our decision last year affirming in part and remanding for additional findings. Johnson v. Wysocki, 990 N.E.2d 456, 467 (Ind. 2013). Barbara A. and William T. Johnson bought a brand-new home in 1973, deeded it into a trust in 1996, and sold it to Joseph and M. Carmen Wysocki in 2006. The Johnsons had lived in the home continuously through-out their ownership, and William performed most of the renovation and maintenance work himself, including building a deck that was later enclosed into a screened porch, and running electrical wiring to an above-ground swimming pool. The Johnsons also hired a contractor to extend the roofline over the front porch.

When the Johnsons sold the home, Barbara as trustee signed a Seller's Residential Real Estate Sales Disclosure Form stating there were no building code violations, no work had been per-formed without any required permits, and there were no foundational, structural, moisture, water, or roof problems. The Wysockis made a purchase offer contingent on an independent inspection, and their inspection revealed no problems, so they accepted the property as-is and closed on their purchase in July 2006.

But shortly after moving in, the Wysockis discovered water leaks in the garage and over the front porch, structural problems with the front porch overhang and the foundation of the screened porch, and grossly substandard electrical wiring to the swimming pool. They spent $1,200 to bring the pool wiring up to code and about $3,500 to fix the roof; and they obtained estimates of about $2,800 and $6,300 to fix the porches' structural problems. They sued the Johnsons for fraudulently failing to disclose those defects on the disclosure form. (Another count was resolved on summary judgment and is not at issue here.) After a bench trial, the trial court awarded $13,805.95 in compensatory damages, but not attorney fees, costs, or exemplary damages under the CVRA:

12. This Court finds that the damages that should be allocated to those repairs are as follows:
(a) $1,200 . . . for the cost to repair electrical service lines below the screened-in-deck [sic] and to run a ...

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