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Sandberg Trucking, Inc. v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Indiana

May 11, 2017

Sandberg Trucking, Inc., and Kimiel Horn, Appellants-Defendants,
Brittany M. Johnson, Appellee-Plaintiff.

         Appeal from the Tippecanoe Circuit Court Trial Court Cause No. 79C01-1503-CT-14 The Honorable Thomas H. Busch, Judge

          Attorneys for Appellants Robert F. Foos Neha M. Matta Neal Bowling Lewis Wagner, LLP Indianapolis, Indiana

          Attorneys for Appellee Timothy S. Schafer Timothy S. Schafer II Todd S. Schafer Schafer & Schafer, LLP Merrillville, Indiana

          Bradford, Judge.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Appellants-Defendants Sandberg Trucking, Inc., and Kimiel Horn (collectively, "Appellants") appeal following a jury trial after which they were found thirty percent liable for the injuries of Appellee-Plaintiff Brittany Johnson and ordered to pay $2.13 million in damages. In April of 2008, a tractor-trailer owned by Sandberg and driven by Horn was southbound on I-65 when it struck a deer in the dark, leaving remains in the roadway. Horn stopped his truck approximately 250 feet down the roadway on the shoulder, exited his truck to examine the damage to it, but did not activate the truck's emergency flashers or deploy deflective triangles behind his truck or near the deer remains. Approximately ninety seconds after parking on the shoulder, Horn activated his truck's emergency flashers.

         [¶2] At around this time, a car driven by Johnson's fiancé Joshua Horne approached from the north, and, while apparently attempting to avoid the deer remains, careened out of control into Horn's parked truck, killing Joshua and seriously injuring Johnson. Johnson sued Appellants for negligence, and a jury found Appellants thirty percent liable for Johnson's injures, awarding her $2.13 million. Appellants argue that there is insufficient evidence to sustain the jury's verdict, the trial court allowed the jury to base its verdict upon impermissible speculation, the trial court erred in concluding that Appellants had a duty to warn fellow motorists of a hazard in the road and that a federal regulation pertaining to stopped commercial vehicles applies in this case, and Johnson failed to produce evidence to support the jury award of damages. Johnson contests all of the above assertions. Because we find Appellants' arguments to be without merit, we affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶3] On April 27, 2008, Horn was employed by Sandberg as a truck driver and was southbound in the dark on I-65 in Tippecanoe County at approximately 5:00 a.m. When several deer ran out in front of Horn's tractor-trailer, he unsuccessfully attempted to avoid them, striking one with the left front part of his truck, leaving the deer's remains spread over both lanes of the highway. Horn pulled his truck completely onto the right shoulder, parking approximately 250 feet south of where he struck the deer.

         [¶4] Before activating his truck's emergency flashers, Horn climbed out to assess the damage, which included a headlamp swinging from its connecting wire. After addressing the damaged headlamp, Horn climbed back into the cab, activated the emergency flashers, and began retrieving a box of reflective triangles. Approximately ninety seconds had elapsed since Horn parked the truck. As Horn unlocked the triangle case, he heard the squealing of tires, and, roughly ten seconds later, a car struck the back of his truck.

         [¶5] Meanwhile, Joshua had been approaching the scene driving southbound on I-65 in the right lane with Johnson, his fiancée, in the passenger seat. Presumably to avoid the remains of the deer, Joshua swerved hard to the left and overcorrected to the right, losing control of the vehicle, which slid into the rear of Horn's truck; Joshua was severely injured and died at the scene. Johnson, then twenty-two years old, sustained severe and, in some cases, permanent injuries, including traumatic brain injury, a ruptured spleen, multiple skull fractures, multiple rib fractures, permanent facial nerve palsy and scarring on her forehead, deafness in her left ear, and memory loss. Additionally, Johnson has trouble learning new things, suffers post-concussive migraines, has gait instability and balance problems, and is at increased risk of developing dementia in the future.

         [¶6] On July 23, 2009, Johnson filed her complaint against Sandberg and the then- unknown driver of the truck, alleging negligence in failing to activate the truck's emergency flashers or deploy reflective triangles or flares. In response to Appellants' motion for summary judgment, Johnson alleged that Appellants had violated section 392.22 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations ("Section 392.22"), which provides, in part, as follows:

(a) Hazard warning signal flashers. Whenever a commercial motor vehicle is stopped upon the traveled portion of a highway or the shoulder of a highway for any cause other than necessary traffic stops, the driver of the stopped commercial motor vehicle shall immediately activate the vehicular hazard warning signal flashers and continue the flashing until the driver places the warning devices required by paragraph (b) of this section. The flashing signals shall be used during the time the warning devices are picked up for storage before movement of the commercial motor vehicle. The flashing lights may be used at other times while a commercial motor vehicle is stopped in addition to, but not in lieu of, the warning devices required by paragraph (b) of this section.

49 C.F.R. § 392.22. Appellants countered that Section 392.22 was inapplicable, as Horn was not engaged in interstate commerce at the time of the accident. The trial court denied Appellants' motion for summary judgment and its request for an order preventing Johnson from placing into evidence the obligations mentioned in Section 392.22.

         [¶7] On February 23, 24, and 26, 2016, jury trial was held on Johnson's negligence claim. James Pinckney, a transportation consultant opined that Horn's failure to follow Section 392.22's requirement to immediately activate his truck's emergency flashers was the cause of the second accident. Following the presentation of Johnson's case, the trial court denied Appellants' motion for directed verdict. On February 26, 2016, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Johnson, finding that she had $7.1 million in damages and that Appellants were thirty percent at fault, [1] for a total money judgment of $2.13 million. On March 28, 2016, Appellants filed a motion to correct error, in which they argued that Johnson failed to establish that any act or omission on Appellants' part was the proximate cause of Johnson's injuries and that the verdict was unsupported by sufficient evidence. On April 27, 2016, the trial court denied Appellants' motion to correct error.

         [¶8] Appellants argue that (1) the trial court erred in concluding that Horn had a duty to warn other motorists not only of his stopped truck but also of the deer remains, (2) Johnson failed to prove that the alleged negligent actions of Horn were the proximate cause of her injuries, (3) the trial court erroneously allowed the jury to engage in impermissible speculation, (4) the trial court erroneously concluded that Section 392.22 established the correct standard for Horn's behavior in this case, and (5) the jury's damages award in favor of Johnson for $2.13 million was not supported by the evidence presented at trial.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶9] "'[T]o prevail on a claim of negligence the plaintiff must show: (1) duty owed to plaintiff by defendant; (2) breach of duty by allowing conduct to fall below the applicable standard of care; and (3) compensable injury proximately caused by defendant's breach of duty.'" Goodwin v. Yeakle's Sports Bar & Grill, Inc., 62 N.E.3d 384, 386 (Ind. 2016) (quoting King v. Ne. Sec., Inc., 790 N.E.2d 474, 484 (Ind. 2003)). "Whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff is a question of law for the court to decide." N. Ind. Pub. Serv. Co. v. Sharp, 790 N.E.2d 462, 466 (Ind. 2003).

         Standards of Review

         [¶10] Appellants appeal from the trial court's denial of their motion to correct error.

In general, we review a trial court's ruling on a motion to correct error for an abuse of discretion. Hawkins v. Cannon, 826 N.E.2d 658, 661 (Ind.Ct.App. 2005), trans. denied. However, to the extent the issues raised by the City are purely questions of law, our review is de novo. See Ind. BMV v. Charles, 919 N.E.2d 114, 116 (Ind.Ct.App. 2009) ("Although rulings on motions to correct error are usually reviewable under an abuse of discretion standard, we review a case de novo when the issue … is purely a question of law.")[.]

City of Indpls. v. Hicks, 932 N.E.2d 227, 230 (Ind.Ct.App. 2010), trans. denied. In the present case, this standard of review is appropriately applied only to the questions of whether Appellants had a duty of care to Johnson and whether Section 392.22 applies in this case, which are questions of law for the court.

         [¶11] For the remainder of their claims, Appellants are essentially arguing that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the jury's verdict. "The jury, as the trier of fact, must weigh the evidence, draw any reasonable inferences, resolve conflicts in the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses and decide in whose favor the evidence preponderates." Ferdinand Furniture Co. v. Anderson, 399 N.E.2d 799, 805 (Ind.Ct.App. 1980).

Consequently, our standard of review allows us to overturn a jury's verdict only if there is no evidence on the elements of the plaintiff's claim which will support the verdict. Farm Bureau Ins. Co. v. Crabtree (1984), Ind. App., 467 N.E.2d 1220, 1225, rehearing denied, transfer denied. On such challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence we view the record in a light most favorable to the verdict, do not reweigh evidence, and will not rejudge the credibility of witnesses.

Planned Parenthood of Nw. Ind., Inc. v. Vines, 543 N.E.2d 654, 658 (Ind.Ct.App. 1989), tran ...

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