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Sasso v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.

Court of Appeals of Indiana

September 11, 2015

Sheila Sasso and Mary Sasso, Appellants-Defendants,
v.
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, Appellee-Plaintiff

Appeal from the Montgomery Superior Court. The Honorable David A. Ault, Judge. Case No. 54D01-1308-PL-637.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: James E. Ayers, Wernle, Ristine & Ayers, Crawfordsville, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: W. Brent Threlkeld, Kelly A. Roth, Threlkeld & Associates, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Najam, Judge. Kirsch, J., and Barnes, J., concur.

OPINION

Najam, Judge.

Statement of the Case

[¶1] Sheila Sasso appeals the trial court's entry of summary judgment for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (" State Farm" ) on State Farm's complaint for declaratory judgment. Sheila presents several issues for our review, which we consolidate and restate as the following two issues:

1. Whether Indiana's Guest Statute, Indiana Code Section 34-30-11-1 (2014),[1] prohibits Sheila's negligence claim against her mother, Mary Sasso, for Sheila's injuries arising from an automobile accident in Mary's car while Mary was driving.
2. Whether the Guest Statute violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution[2] or Article 1, Sections 12 and 23 of the Indiana Constitution.[3]

[¶2] We affirm.[4]

Facts and Procedural History

[¶3] In October of 2010, Sheila, an Illinois resident, called her mother, Mary,[5] to determine whether she would be interested in visiting the Parke County, Indiana, covered bridge festival. Sheila hoped to " meet vendors" for her online business, which was " similar to e[B]ay" but " not [an] auction." Appellant's App. at 126. Mary, a resident of Crawfordsville, Indiana, agreed.

[¶4] Sheila met up with Mary on October 14, and, the next day, Mary drove Sheila in Mary's car to the festival. Sheila paid Mary $50 for gas and bought Mary lunch. Later, while Mary was driving to another location at the festival, her vehicle was involved in an accident, and Sheila was severely injured. Mary has an automobile insurance policy with State Farm.

[¶5] On October 15, 2012, Sheila filed a negligence claim against Mary. Thereafter, State Farm, under a different cause number, filed a complaint for declaratory judgment against Sheila and Mary. On August 4, 2014, State Farm moved for summary judgment on its complaint. Following a hearing, the trial court entered judgment in favor of State Farm. This appeal ensued.

Discussion and Decision

Standard of Review

[¶6] Our standard of review for summary judgment appeals is well established. As our supreme court has stated:

We review summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the trial court: " Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of . . . the non-moving parties, summary judgment is appropriate 'if the designated evidentiary matter shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Williams v. Tharp, 914 N.E.2d 756, 761 (Ind. 2009) (quoting T.R. 56(C)). " A fact is 'material' if its resolution would affect the outcome of the case, and an issue is 'genuine' if a trier of fact is required to resolve the parties' differing accounts of the truth, or if the undisputed material facts support conflicting reasonable inferences." Id. (internal citations omitted).
The initial burden is on the summary-judgment movant to " demonstrate [ ] the absence of any genuine issue of fact as to a determinative issue," at which point the burden shifts to the non-movant to " come forward with contrary evidence" showing an issue for the trier of fact. Id. at 761-62 (internal quotation marks and substitution omitted). And " [a]lthough the non-moving party has the burden on appeal of persuading us that the grant of summary judgment was erroneous, we carefully assess the trial court's decision to ensure that he was not improperly denied his day in court." McSwane v. Bloomington Hosp. & Healthcare Sys., 916 N.E.2d 906, 909-10 (Ind. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000, 1003 (Ind. 2014) (alterations original to Hughley ).

[¶7] Summary judgment is a " high bar" for the moving party to clear in Indiana. Id. at 1004. " In particular, while federal practice permits the moving party to merely show that the party carrying the burden of proof [at trial] lacks evidence on a necessary element, we impose a more onerous burden: to affirmatively 'negate an opponent's claim.'" Id. at 1003 (quoting Jarboe v. Landmark Cmty. Newspapers of Ind., Inc., 644 N.E.2d 118, 123 (Ind. 1994)). Further:

Summary judgment is a desirable tool to allow the trial court to dispose of cases where only legal issues exist. But it is also a " blunt . . . instrument" by which the non-prevailing party is prevented from having his day in court. We have therefore cautioned that summary judgment is not a summary trial and the Court of Appeals has often rightly observed that it is not appropriate merely because the non-movant appears unlikely to prevail at trial. In essence, Indiana consciously errs on the ...

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