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Roumbos v. Vazanellis

Supreme Court of Indiana

April 12, 2018

Elizabeth Roumbos, Appellant (Plaintiff),
Samuel G. Vazanellis & Thiros and Stracci, PC, Appellees (Defendants),

          Argued: November 9, 2017

          Appeal from the Lake Superior Court No. 45D01-1501-CT-2 The Honorable John M. Sedia, Judge

          On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals No. 45A03-1606-CT-1424

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Mark S. Pantello Fort Wayne, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES David C. Jensen Robert J. Feldt Hammond, Indiana



         This case is nominally about lawyer malpractice but really about premises liability. Plaintiff was 85 years old when she fell and severely fractured her leg while visiting her husband in the hospital. Plaintiff retained Defendants-a lawyer and his law firm-to represent her against the hospital. Defendants missed the filing deadline by failing to sue the hospital within the applicable statute of limitations. Under the "trial-within-a-trial" doctrine, a client alleging legal malpractice must prove not only that the lawyer's conduct fell below the governing duty of care but also that the client would have prevailed had the lawyer not been negligent. Neither side disputes that missing a filing deadline breaches the duty of care lawyers owe to clients. So this case is about the second prong: Would Plaintiff have won her claim against the hospital had the lawyer timely sued?

         The law firm invokes a defense the hospital would have asserted-that the hospital did not breach its duty under premises-liability law because Plaintiff's fall was caused by a known or obvious condition: the wires and cords lying on the floor on which she allegedly tripped. We granted transfer to consider whether, as the Court of Appeals held, the landowner bears the burden on summary judgment to disprove that the invitee was distracted from or forgot about a known danger on the premises when the invitee made no such claim and designated no such evidence herself. But after oral argument, it is clear this issue is not squarely before us. Both parties now concede the invitee did not know of the tripping risk that she claims caused her fall. Although we have previously vacated grants of transfer when the factual premise for our grant proves false, we elect to decide this case on its merits.

         We hold that Defendants, as movants on summary judgment, failed to negate the causation element of Plaintiff's malpractice claim. Specifically, Defendants failed to establish, as a matter of law, that Plaintiff would not have succeeded in her premises-liability claim against the hospital. We reverse the trial court's order granting summary judgment for Defendants and remand.

         Factual and Procedural History

         During the wee morning hours, Plaintiff, Elizabeth Roumbos, called an ambulance to rush her elderly husband to the emergency room at St. Anthony Hospital in Crown Point, Indiana. The hospital eventually admitted him and assigned him to a single-occupancy room. For a few hours, Roumbos stayed in the room by his side before going home to rest. At about noon, she returned to the hospital to check on his condition and spend time with him. After about twenty minutes, he asked for a glass of water. She got up from her seat and walked around the foot of the bed to a table on the other side. She poured him some water and handed him the glass. He took a few sips and returned the glass, which she put back on the table. As she was returning to her seat, she tripped and fell, fracturing her femur. Roumbos originally claimed the cause of her fall was a "dangerous mess of cords and wires on the floor", which she only saw after she fell. Most recently, Roumbos specified the telephone cord was the cause.

         Roumbos retained Samuel Vazanellis and his law firm, Thiros and Stracci, PC, to sue the hospital for negligence under a theory of premises liability. The firm did not sue within the applicable statute of limitations, so Roumbos sued the firm for malpractice. The firm moved for summary judgment, arguing Roumbos could not prove injury resulting from the firm's negligence because she would not have prevailed against the hospital in any event. The trial court entered summary judgment for the firm. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that summary judgment was improper because even if Roumbos knew of the tripping hazard, the firm designated no evidence the hospital could not have reasonably anticipated the harm Roumbos sustained. We granted transfer, and at oral argument the parties acknowledged Roumbos did not know of the telephone cord or other wires on the floor.

         Discussion and Decision

         We hold the trial court erred in granting summary judgment for the law firm. The designated evidence establishes a genuine issue of material fact-whether the phone cord and other wires posed an obvious danger. Although we can imagine scenarios when the dangerous condition is so clearly obvious that no reasonable factfinder could conclude otherwise, this is not such a case. We assess obviousness from a reasonable person's perspective and hold on this record that obviousness is a question for the finder of fact. Thus, because the firm failed to ...

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