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Civil: Supreme Court Addresses Negligence, Grandparent Custody & Visitation Rights
Posted in Litigation

On Wednesday, the Indiana Supreme Court issued two opinions – one addressing issues pertaining to negligence claims, the other addressing the scope of grandparent custody and visitation rights.

In Estate of Mintz v. Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., the Indiana Supreme Court addressed several issues arising from an insured’s claim of negligence against an insurance “servicing agent” and an insurer.

The issues in Mintz arose when an Indiana University professor reached retirement, and his University-provided life insurance needed to be converted from group coverage to individual policies by a specific deadline in order for him to maintain the same level of coverage.  The University sent Mintz a letter instructing him to contact a servicing agent, Wayne Gruber, with any questions.  Mintz and his wife called Gruber, and informed him that Mintz was terminally ill and that they wanted to convert the entire value of the group coverage to individual policies.  According to Mrs. Mintz, Gruber responded, “Absolutely.  Just leave it to me.  I will do everything.”  However, the policies were not converted as intended.

Although several claims were made against Gruber, the one that the Indiana Supreme Court addressed was negligence.  The trial court concluded that Gruber was entitled to summary judgment on the Estate’s negligence claim because Mintz’s injuries were not proximately caused by Gruber’s negligence.  The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that “Gruber’s actions were not the proximate cause of the Mintzes’ loss of insurance coverage.”

The Indiana Supreme Court used this case to reiterate two principles concerning proximate cause.  First, the Court stated, “summary judgment is generally inappropriate in negligence cases because issues of contributory negligence, causation, and reasonable care are more appropriately left for the trier of fact.”  Second, “It is not necessary for a defendant’s act or omission to be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury, so long as the conduct is a proximate cause of the injury.” 

Applying these principles, the Supreme Court held:  “Whether Gruber’s actions proximately caused the Mintzes’ injuries is highly fact sensitive and more appropriately left for resolution by a fact-finder than resolved by summary disposition.  Indeed a fact-finder could very well conclude that the Mintzes’ actions as well as Gruber’s actions were proximate causes of the Mintzes’ injuries.  As such the apportionment principles of comparative fault are triggered.”

The plaintiffs also sought to hold Connecticut General, the insurer, liable under an agency theory – i.e., Gruber was an insurance “agent,” who represents the insurer, rather than an insurance “broker,” who represents the insured. The Court concluded that, under the undisputed evidence, Gruber – who was referred to by both parties as a “servicing agent” – was not an agent of the insurer.

In the second case Wednesday, In re Paternity of K.I., the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s ruling changing the custody of K.I. from her maternal grandmother to her natural father.  The Court framed the central issues in the case as:  “(1) what standard a trial court should apply when ruling on a parent’s petition to modify custody of a child who is already in the custody of a third party, and (2) what role, if any, the presumption in favor of the natural parent plays in a modification proceeding.” 

Citing the “important and strong presumption” that a child’s best interests are best served by placement with a natural parent, the Court explained that there must be proof “by clear and convincing evidence” that the child’s best interests “are substantially and significantly served” by placement with a third party, including grandparents.  The Court also concluded that this standard applies to both petitions to determine initial custody and petitions to modify custody, disapproving prior Indiana Court of Appeals precedent that different standards applied to modifications.

The Indiana Supreme Court in K.I. also explained that grandparent visitation is not governed by Indiana’s Parenting Time Guidelines, which the trial court had applied to determine the maternal grandmother’s visitation rights.  Instead, the Court held, determining grandparent visitation rights should be made exclusively under Indiana’s Grandparent Visitation Act.

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