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Gonzalez v. Ritz

Court of Appeals of Indiana

May 21, 2018

Sheila Gonzalez and Rod Gonzalez, Appellants-Plaintiffs,
v.
Sara Ritz, Northern Indiana Public Service Company, Porter County Drug Task Force, and Town of Chesterton, Appellees-Defendants.

          Appeal from the Porter Superior Court The Honorable Roger V. Bradford, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 64D01-1410-CT-8648

          Attorney for Appellants Adam J. Sedia Hoeppner, Wagner & Evans, LLP Merrillville, Indiana

          Attorneys for Appellees Sara L. Ritz and Porter County Drug Task Force Crystal G. Rowe Alyssa C.B. Cochran Kightlinger & Gray, LLP New Albany, Indiana Galen A. Bradley Kightlinger & Gray, LLP Merrillville, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellee Town of Chesterton Thomas Waggoner Straub, Seaman & Allen, PC St. Joseph, Michigan

          BRADFORD, JUDGE.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] In July of 2014, Sheila Gonzalez was riding her bicycle on a trail with her two children when the trio came to an intersection with a road. When Sheila attempted to cross the road, she was struck by a vehicle driven by Sara Ritz, a member of the Chesterton Police Department ("the Department") and Porter County Drug Task Force ("the Task Force"). Gonzalez and her husband Rod sued Ritz, the Task Force, and the Town of Chesterton ("the Town") for negligence. The Task Force moved for summary judgment on the basis that there was no genuine issue of material fact that Sheila had been contributorily negligent as a matter of law. The Town joined the Task Force's motion, and the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the Task Force and the Town (collectively, "Appellees"). The Gonzalezes appeal, contending that the designated evidence does not inevitably lead to the inference that Sheila was contributorily negligent. Because we agree, we reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Appellees and remand for trial.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] In July of 2014, Ritz was employed as a detective for the Department and served as a member of the Task Force. On July 9, 2014, Ritz was in Portage, Indiana, conducting an investigation within the course and scope of her employment. Ritz was stopped at the four-way intersection of Swanson Road and Aspen Road before she proceeded east down Lute Road.

         [¶3] Meanwhile, Sheila and her children Vanessa and Carter had been riding their bicycles on the Prairie Duneland Trail ("the Trail") nearby. The trio approached the Trail's intersection with Lute Road, which had a stop sign directing bicyclists to stop and yield to traffic on Lute Road. No trees, shrubbery, tall grass, weather, or other obstructions prevented bicyclists from seeing traffic on Lute Road that day. When the three Gonzalezes reached the stop sign at the Lute Road intersection, they came to a complete stop. Vanessa crossed Lute Road without incident and waited on the other side.

         [¶4] Carter and Sheila remained stopped on the Trail while approximately nine to ten vehicles passed on Lute Road. Sheila looked right then left, told Carter that "it was clear, we can go[, ]" and started to pedal across Lute Road. Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 48. Carter agreed with Sheila's assessment that "the traffic became clear on Lute Road[, ]" and, after looking both ways himself, started to follow Sheila, trailing a few feet behind. Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 43. As Carter started to follow Sheila across the street, he looked to his right and noticed Ritz's vehicle approaching. Carter stopped his bicycle and yelled at Sheila to stop. Carter first saw Ritz's vehicle approximately one second before it struck Sheila.

         [¶5] According to Carter, the vehicle appeared to be going faster than all of the other vehicles that had passed. Vanessa told police at the scene that Ritz's vehicle was going "f****** fast[, ]" Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 63, and later opined that Ritz was driving too fast. Although Sheila could not recall anything about the accident, she testified that it was her practice while riding a bicycle to stop at all intersections and look both ways before crossing.

         [¶6] On February 4, 2016, the Gonzalezes filed their first amended complaint. The Gonzalezes alleged, inter alia, that the Appellees were vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of their employee, Ritz.[1] On April 12, 2016, the Town filed its answer to the Gonzalezes' amended complaint, and on April 18, 2016, the Task Force filed its answer. On May 17, 2017 the Task Force moved for summary judgment. The Town joined the Task Force's summary-judgment motion and filed its own on July 10, 2017.

         [¶7] On September 25, 2017, the trial court denied the Gonzalezes' motion to file a belated response to the Appellees' summary-judgment motion, held a hearing (at which the Gonzalezes were permitted to present argument), and granted summary judgment in favor of the Appellees. The ...


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