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Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles v. Schneider

Court of Appeals of Indiana

November 22, 2019

Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Appellant-Respondent,
v.
Gregory D. Schneider, Appellee-Petitioner,

          Attorneys for Appellant Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Natalie F. Weiss Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana

          Appeal from the Vigo Superior Court The Honorable Christopher A. Newton, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 84D04-1712-MI-9013

          ROBB, JUDGE.

         Case Summary and Issue

         [¶1] Gregory Schneider applied to the trial court for an order directing the Bureau of Motor Vehicles ("BMV") to issue a certificate of title to a truck he purchased at an auction. Over the BMV's objection, the trial court ordered the BMV to issue a salvage title to the vehicle. The BMV now appeals, raising one issue for our review: whether the trial court's judgment is contrary to law. Concluding the trial court's order is contrary to Indiana Code section 9-22-3-18, we reverse.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] In June 2017, Schneider purchased a 2013 Ford F-250 truck with a vehicle identification number ("VIN") ending in 2853 at a salvage auction. The certificate of title Schneider was given was lost or destroyed, and Schneider therefore applied to the trial court for an order directing the BMV to issue a certificate of title. Attached to Schneider's application, inter alia, was an Affidavit of Restoration for a Salvage Motor Vehicle signed by a Terre Haute Police Department patrolman attesting that the patrolman had personally examined the vehicle and certifying that the "salvage restoration conforms to Indiana Code [ch.] 9-22-3." Appellant's Appendix, Volume 2 at 32. The trial court issued an order on January 11, 2018, instructing the BMV to "issue a certificate of title to [Schneider] upon receipt of payment of all requisite costs and fees." Id. at 23.

         [¶3] On June 5, 2018, the BMV filed a motion for relief from judgment, alleging it had not been served with the application or a summons and was unaware of the trial court's order until receiving a title application packet from Schneider on May 25, 2018. Upon receiving the packet, the BMV ran the truck's VIN through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System ("NMVTIS")[1]and found the title was branded[2] as "[c]rushed" in Louisiana as of October 20, 2016. Id. at 24. Such a brand means the "frame or chassis of the vehicle has been crushed or otherwise destroyed so that it is physically impossible to use it in constructing a vehicle." Id. Citing Indiana Code section 9-22-3-18, which prohibits issuance of a certificate of title for a vehicle that has been designated junk, dismantled, scrap, destroyed, "or any similar designation in another state or jurisdiction[, ]" the BMV asked that the trial court's January 11, 2018 order be vacated as contrary to law. The trial court granted the BMV's motion "to the extent it directs issuance of a certificate of title" and set the matter for a hearing. Id. at 17.

         [¶4] Schneider appeared in person for the hearing on July 13, 2018, and the BMV appeared by counsel telephonically. The BMV stated that as long as the trial court's most recent order granting its motion to set aside the judgment stands, "[w]e don't have any other interest in this matter." [July 13, 2018] Petition for Title Hearing ("July Tr."), Volume 2 at 6. Schneider asserted the truck was a "flood vehicle" and stated he wanted "to pay taxes on it so [he] can license it and insurance [sic] it and drive it." Id. at 7. The trial court set a review hearing and took the matter under advisement to "[s]ee if there isn't something else that could be done[.]" Id. at 8. At the review hearing, [3] the trial court stated, "[Schneider] said he wants a salvaged title or whatever. I mean, he just wants to drive the car which is understandable[.] . . . I'll order the BMV to issue him a salvaged title and then, let's just see what . . . they do this time." [December 10, 2018] Petition for Title Hearing ("Dec. Tr."), Volume 2 at 7. Accordingly, the trial court issued a written order that the BMV "shall issue a certificate of title (salvaged) to [Schneider] upon receipt of payment of all requisite costs and fees." Appealed Order at 2 (emphasis added). The BMV now appeals.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶5] Initially, we note that Schneider failed to file an appellee's brief. When the appellee fails to file a brief on appeal, we do not undertake the burden of developing arguments for that party. Trinity Homes, LLC v. Fang, 848 N.E.2d 1065, 1068 (Ind. 2006). Rather, we will reverse the trial court's judgment if the appellant makes a prima facie showing of reversible error. Id. In this context, prima facie error is defined as "at first sight, on first appearance, or on the face of it." Orlich v. Orlich, 859 N.E.2d 671, 673 (Ind.Ct.App. 2006).

         [¶6] The BMV contends that the trial court's order was contrary to law because Indiana Code section 9-22-3-18 prohibits issuance of any title to this vehicle. The interpretation of a statute is a question of law which we review de novo. BP Prods. N. America, Inc. v. Ind. Office of Util. Consumer Counselor, 964 N.E.2d 234, 236 (Ind.Ct.App. 2011). "The primary purpose of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. The best evidence of legislative intent is the statutory language itself, and we strive to give the words in a statute their plain and ordinary meaning." 21st Amendment, Inc. v. Ind. Alcohol & Tobacco Comm'n, 84 N.E.3d 691, 696 (Ind.Ct.App. 2017) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted), trans. denied.

         [¶7] We begin by elaborating on Indiana's Salvage Motor Vehicles Act. Ind. Code ch. 9-22-3. Whereas a "salvage vehicle" might be considered in the common vernacular to be any number of vehicles used for parts or scrap, the Salvage Motor Vehicles Act allows a salvage title to be issued only to a very specific category of salvage vehicles described in Indiana Code section 9-22-3-3. Relevant to this case is that the statute requires a flood damaged vehicle manufactured within the last seven years to have a salvage title. Ind. Code § 9-22-3-3(a)(3).[4] If a vehicle for which a salvage title has been issued is later repaired and made operable, a "rebuilt vehicle title" may be obtained. Ind. Code § 9-22-3-15. Schneider and the trial court both referred to this truck as a "flood vehicle." See July Tr., Vol. 2 at 7; Dec. Tr., Vol. 2 at 6. Schneider provided proof that the vehicle was inspected by a police officer and deemed roadworthy. He also showed the trial court a picture of the vehicle at the July hearing and the trial court observed that "it looks fine." July Tr., Vol. 2 at 7. The trial court understandably wanted to offer Schneider some avenue to be able to drive his vehicle. However, other than Schneider's assertion, there is no evidence that this vehicle meets the definition of a flood damaged vehicle such that it could have been issued a salvage title. See Ind. Code § 9-22-3-2.5.

         [¶8] Moreover, even if this vehicle did meet the definition of a flood damaged vehicle, it appears that the plain language of section 9-22-3-18 would still prohibit it from being titled if it also bears a particular brand. Indiana Code section 9-22-3-18 states, "A vehicle that has been designated 'JUNK', 'DISMANTLED', 'SCRAP', 'DESTROYED', or any similar designation in another state or jurisdiction shall not be titled in Indiana." (Emphasis added.) Only one case has addressed this statute. Ind. Bureau of Motor Vehicles v. Majestic Auto Body, 128 N.E.3d 466 (Ind.Ct.App. 2019), concerned an effort to title two vehicles that had been purchased at an auction in Texas. The vehicles were branded junk vehicles because they had been damaged during Hurricane Harvey. The NMVTIS report indicated the vehicles were "incapable of safe operation for use on the roads or highways and [have] no resale value except as a source of parts or scrap." Id. at 467. Upon bringing the vehicles to Indiana, Majestic had them inspected by the Indiana State Police, ...


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