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Indiana Business Owners Await Ruling in Key Premises Liability Case

The Indiana Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case that could have significant repercussions for nearly every business owner in the State.  At issue is whether the so-called “very duty” doctrine, which requires landowners to take reasonable precautions to protect their guests from criminal attacks, is still the law in Indiana.

The case at issue is Estate of Santelli v. Super 8 Motel.  James Santelli was staying at Super 8 motel in October 2005, when a former maintenance employee of the motel broke into Mr.  Santelli’s room, robbed him and killed him.  His estate filed a civil suit against the motel and its owner, claiming that the motel, because of the “very duty” doctrine, had a duty to take steps to protect its guests from criminal attacks, and failed to protect Santelli. 

Allocating fault to individuals and businesses
The motel argued that the “very duty” doctrine was essentially overruled when the State Legislature amended the State’s Comparative Fault Act in 1995.  The amended Comparative Fault Act governs claims that someone is at fault (e.g., negligent) for a given injury or loss, including partial fault. A defendant can ask a jury to allocate all or a portion of the “fault” for a loss to the intentional misconduct of other parties, including crimes. The jury in the Santelli case did just that. The jury allocated 97 percent of the fault for Santelli’s death to the former employee who killed him, 2 percent to the motel and 1 percent to Santelli himself.

Santelli’s estate appealed and the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the verdict and ordered that a new trial occur.  It essentially ruled that the “very duty” doctrine is still good law in Indiana, and that the jury should have been instructed to determine whether the motel met its duty to take precautions, and should not have been able to allocate a percentage of fault to the former employee.

Impact on businesses open to the public
The case later found its way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which heard arguments from both sides last month.  The Supreme Court’s ruling, which is expected to be issued in the next couple of months, could significantly impact not only motels, but businesses of all kinds that are open to the public.  For example, if the Court of Appeals’ ruling stands, some businesses may have to pay more for insurance coverage, or may have trouble even getting coverage, which eventually impacts its customers, as well.  Stay tuned for the final ruling in this important case.



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