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Monday, December 12, 2005

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court hears arguments on the standard of care applicable to minors

Last Thursday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Penn Harris Madison (P-H-M) School Corp. v. Howard. The oral argument is available for listening here and also includes this summary:

Penn Harris Madison School Corp. v. Howard
Case Number: 71S05-0511-CV-509

Summary: Pursuant to a jury verdict, the St. Joseph Superior Court entered a judgment for Howard on her claim that the School Corporation’s negligence resulted in injury to her seventeen-year-old son. The Court of Appeals reversed after concluding the trial court erroneously instructed the jury regarding the standard of care to be exercised by a minor and regarding the last-clear-chance doctrine. Penn Harris Madison School Corp. v. Howard, 832 N.E.2d 1013 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), vacated. The Supreme Court has granted a petition to transfer the case, thus vacating the opinion of the Court of Appeals, and has assumed jurisdiction over the appeal.

Attorney for Penn Harris
Shannon L. Robinson
Bloomington, IN

Attorney for Howard
Douglas D. Small
South Bend, IN

The South Bend Tribune yesterday had good coverage of the oral arguments, by reporter Martin DeAgostino. Some quotes from the start of the report:
INDIANAPOLIS -- Peter Pan flew in the original book, the Broadway musical and in movies.

But Peter Pan fell 30 feet during an amateur production at Elsie Rogers Elementary School five years ago, leaving 17-year-old David Howard with serious injuries and $100,000 in medical bills.

Now the Indiana Supreme Court will decide if a $200,000 jury award to Howard should stand, or if the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp. is right to claim that Howard's own negligence should bar the award.

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled for the school system in August, citing improper jury instructions. The Supreme Court took the case on appeal to clarify some uncertainties in cases that involve a defense of contributory negligence, according to lawyers familiar with the case.

As such, the court's decision directly bears on another pending case against P-H-M, involving a student who was molested by her fourth-grade teacher. In that case, the school corporation claims not that the girl contributed to the crime, but that she should have reported it long before she did.

The school's defense is based on a legal theory called standard of care, which also applies in Howard's case.

Essentially, P-H-M says Howard should have exercised the same degree of care that an adult would have exercised when he attached a harness to a cable to simulate flight across a stage.

But Howard's lawyer says that's too strict a standard, even though Indiana trial rules have long applied the adult standard of care to minors above the age of 14. * * *

The hearing involved a brief history of Indiana's standard of care rule, often called the "rule of sevens." Rooted in biblical injunctions, the rule assigns greater or lesser responsibility to children depending on if they are younger than 7, younger than 14 or older than 14.

Noting the rule's biblical origin, Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. asked Shannon L. Robinson, P-H-M's lawyer, why it should apply. "Maybe my question is, should we follow the Bible?"

Answer: "My question is, should we follow 90 years of precedent in this court?"

Here is the now vacated 8/16/05 Court of Appeals decision in Penn Harris Madison School Corp. v. Howard.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 12, 2005 06:19 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions