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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today

Today's decision, Porter County Sheriff Department v. Rita J. and Douglas Guzorek, 15-page in total, with a 3-2 vote, Justice Boehm writing the 11-page majority opinion and Chief Justice Shepard writing the 4-page dissent, presents very strong views on boths sides. For instance, from the dissent:

Justice Boehm has properly rejected Porter County Sheriff’s Department’s various claims about timing and failure of notice under Rule 15(c). His assessment of what constitutes a “mistake of identity,” however, is against the weight of federal and Indiana authority. I see no reason why Indiana should be an outlier on this question, and the majority opinion does not undertake to provide a reason for placing us against the mainstream. * * *

Justice Boehm’s opinion thus swims upstream against both federal and Indiana authority about the meaning of “mistake of identity” by sweeping within Rule 15(c) any mistake, including legal bad calls about who among multiple possible defendants might be liable. * * *

Rule 15(c) was amended to allow relation back where a plaintiff’s honest error results in a mistake of identity. Rule 15(c) was not intended to save parties from the legal or tactical choices made by their lawyers.

From the majority opinion:
The dissent characterizes the Guzoreks’ decision to sue the individual officer rather than the sheriff’s department as a legal or tactical choice. The Chief Justice cites several cases supporting the well-founded proposition that when a party makes a conscious choice of whom to sue, that party cannot seek to add another party under 15(C) after the statute of limitations period had run. We agree that such a choice cannot be considered a mistake under Rule 15(C). * * *

The cases the dissent cites are markedly different from the present one. None involves a suit against a clearly immune party and all involve a rational decision to sue one party and not another. The dissent points out that in some circumstances a claimant may choose to sue an individual employee rather than the government to avoid contending with the contributory negligence rule that governs Tort Claims Act suits against government units. Avoiding contributory negligence by suing the individual may be a sensible decision if there is a genuine issue as to a public employee’s scope of employment. But in this case there is no plausible basis to conclude that Officer Falatic was outside the scope of his employment when he collided with the plaintiff. He was, as noted, returning to his post from a run responding to an alarm. On these facts a suit against the officer was dead on arrival, and the government unit that defended the officer obviously knew that or should have known it. Such a mistake of applicable law—suing the agency that is immune instead of the secretary who is not—is precisely the situation that gave rise to Rule 15(c) in 1966.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 28, 2006 11:36 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions