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Indiana Supreme Court: 6 More Opinions Released Tuesday
Posted in Litigation

In addition to Burke v. Bennett (see our summary here), which settled the outcome of the 2007 Terre Haute mayoral election, the Indiana Supreme Court handed down six more opinions on Tuesday, June 16. 

Pruitt v. State – Death Penalty Rehearing

In Pruitt v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court denied Tommy Ray Pruitt’s request for rehearing from the Court’s March 31 decision affirming his death sentence for murdering Morgan County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Starnes.  (See our summary of the Court’s March 31 decision here).

In its March opinion, the Court concluded that five of Pruitt’s post-conviction claims of ineffective assistance of counsel had been procedurally defaulted.  On rehearing, the Court concluded it should have addressed one of those claims on the merits:  that his counsel was ineffective for misinforming the jury that the State would present expert testimony rebutting Pruitt’s assertion of mental retardation.  The Supreme Court affirmed the post-conviction court’s conclusion that his counsel’s decision to do so was not deficient, but rather a conveyance of a reasonable expectation regarding the testimony that would be presented.

Breaston v. State and Farris v. State – Habitual Offender Enhancements

In a pair of related opinions, the Indiana Supreme Court addressed habitual offender sentence enhancements in the context of unrelated charges and charges that could have been consolidated. In both situations, the Court recognized that the enhancement can dramatically effects the sentence length and concluded that once a defendant’s sentence has been enhanced, it cannot be enhanced a second time without statutory authorization.

In Breaston v. State, the Court concluded that habitual offender enhancements on separate and unrelated charges may not be ordered to serve continuously. In this case, Breaston was convicted of felony theft and placed on work release.  After he failed to return to detention, he was convicted of felony escape and his sentence enhanced as a habitual offender.  In a separate proceeding, while in prison from his earlier convictions, Breaston was charged and convicted for felony theft, again as a habitual offender.  Under these circumstances, the Court concluded that the habitual offender statute did not expressly authorize that the separate enhancements be served consecutively.  As such, the trial court’s imposition of consecutive enhancements was error.

In Farris v. State, the Court concluded that habitual offender enhancements were also prohibited from running consecutively where the enhancements arise from separate trials that could have been consolidated.  In this case, Farris received his first habitual offender enhancement after he and an accomplice were convicted of felony robbery. The accomplice agreed to testify against Farris at trial.  Farris instructed a friend to kill the accomplice because of his cooperation with police. As a result, Farris was convicted of murder and aggravated assault, and his sentence was again enhanced because of the habitual criminal statute.  Finding that the robbery, murder, and battery were based on a “series of acts connected together,” the Indiana Supreme Court concluded that the charges could have been consolidated.  Under those circumstances, the Court explained, “the State is barred from seeking multiple, pyramiding habitual offender sentence enhancements by bringing successive prosecutions for charges which could have been consolidated for trial.”

Thomas v. Blackford County Area BZA – Standing Determinations

By Viki Lewinski

In Thomas v. Blackford County Area Board of Zoning Appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s decision that a property owner lacked standing to challenge a BZA decision.  Doing so, the Court explained the procedural steps available to raise standing issues.

In this case, Oolman Dairy sought and obtained a special exception from the BZA to build and operate a confined animal feeding operation ("CAFO").  Elizabeth Thomas owned property located near the CAFO.  She filed a petition for certiorari in the Circuit Court at which she challenged the special exception.  Oolman intervened and moved to dismiss Thomas's petition under Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6).  Oolman argued that Thomas lacked standing to challenge BZA's ruling because she was not an "aggrieved party" under the applicable statute.  The trial court denied the 12(B)(6) motion.  But, it did hold an evidentiary hearing at which it determined that Thomas failed to establish standing, and dismissed her petition.

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decisions.  As Thomas’s complaint satisfactorily alleged that she was in fact an aggrieved party, a 12(B)(6) dismissal was properly denied.  However, the Supreme Court explained that standing – like personal jurisdiction – may be decided apart from the pleadings (or a motion for summary judgment), after a hearing in which the trial court considers evidence and makes factual determinations.  Those factual determinations, the Court explained, will be reversed only if clearly erroneous.  And, in this case, the Court concluded that the trial court’s findings were not clearly erroneous.

Viki Lewinski is a student at the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, and a summer associate with Bingham McHale.

In re J.M. – Termination of Parental Rights

By Meaghan Klem

In Matter of J.M., the Indiana Supreme Court held that an Allen County trial court’s judgment denying the State’s petition to terminate the parental rights of incarcerated parents was not clearly erroneous.  In this case, J.M.’s parents were both incarcerated for charges related to dealing in methamphetamine.  After being placed with several relatives, J.M was eventually placed in licensed foster care.  Shortly thereafter, the trial court established a permanency plan for J.M. that included termination of parental rights and adoption.  But, when the State petitioned to terminate those rights, the trial court considered evidence leading it to the conclusion that the parents may yet be able to provide a home for J.M. 

The Indiana Supreme Court found that the trial court properly considered four factors in reaching its judgment.  First, the conclusion that the parents’ release dates were soon to occur was not erroneous and was relevant because their incarceration was the reason for J.M.’s removal.  Second, J.M.’s mother had participated fully in the court’s “Parent Participation Plan,” and both parents fully cooperated with required services during incarceration.  Third, both parents had a relationship with J.M. prior to incarceration and both tried to maintain contact with him during their imprisonment.  Finally, the parents had demonstrated an ability to establish a stable and appropriate life for J.M. upon their release.  Father had a job, a new home for the family, and a new car for transportation, and Mother had obtained her bachelor’s degree and completed a community transition program.  Therefore, the judgment finding that conditions leading to J.M.’s removal from his parents’ care would be remedied and that termination of his parents’ parental rights would not be in his best interest was not erroneous.

Meaghan Klem is a student at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and a summer associate with Bingham McHale.

Spar v. Cha – Defenses To Medical Malpractice Claims

By Patrick Ziepolt

In Spar v. Cha, a unanimous Indiana Supreme Court ruled that, with few exceptions, incurred risk or assumed risk is not a defense to medical malpractice.  In this case, Dr. Cha treated Brenda Spar for difficulty in becoming pregnant.  During laparoscopic surgery on Spar’s abdomen, Cha perforated Spar’s bowel.  Spar suffered complications from the resulting infection.  At trial, Spar proceeded on separate theories of (1) negligence in diagnosis or treatment and (2) lack of informed consent.  The trial court instructed the jury on the defense of incurred risk.  Cha argued that Spar knew of the risk of infection and accepted the risk by going forward with the procedure.  The jury returned a general verdict in favor of Cha.  On appeal, Spar argued that the trial court erred by instructing the jury on incurred risk.  The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, but divided on the validity of the incurred risk defense in various medical malpractice scenarios. 

On transfer, the Indiana Supreme Court enumerated four different categories of defense that have been referred to as “incurred risk” or “assumption of risk”:  express consent, two types of implied consent, and contributory negligence.  While contributory negligence remains a valid defense to a malpractice claim, the Court concluded that incurred risk via consent “has little legitimate application in the medical malpractice context.”  Because of the disparity of knowledge between physician and patient, there is “virtually no scenario in which a patient can consent to allow a healthcare provider to exercise less than ordinary care.”  The Court preserved the defense where a patient has failed to follow the instruction of a physician, and suggested the possibility of other exceptions to its general rule (e.g. refusal of blood transfusion for religious reasons).  Pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-18-12-8, a patient may also assume risks related to nondisclosure if she refuses to be informed of the dangers of a medical procedure.  The Court also held that evidence of Spar’s consent to prior surgeries was admissible insofar as it showed her actual knowledge of the surgical risks at hand.  But, based on the instructions as given, the Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the action for a new trial.

Patrick Ziepolt is a student at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and a summer associate with Bingham McHale.



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