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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court issues Papa John opinion

In Thomas Williams and Sanford Kelsey v. Kelly Eugene Tharp and Papa John's U.S.A., Inc., in a 22-page, 3-2 opinion, the trial court decision is affirmed by the Supreme Court. Here, from the July 11, 2008 COA decision:

Two African-American men, Thomas Williams and Sanford Kelsey, went to a Papa John’s restaurant in Westfield to pick up a pizza they had ordered. They paid for the pizza and left for Williams’ home. An employee falsely reported one of the men pulled a gun. A number of police officers surrounded their vehicle when the two returned home with the pizza. Police detained the men, in handcuffs and on their knees, for an hour and a half while they investigated.

Williams and Kelsey sued Papa John’s and its employee for defamation, false imprisonment, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted summary judgment for Papa John’s and its employee on the ground the complaint included no defamatory statement; it also found the employee’s statement was privileged even if defamatory and the employee did not act intentionally or in an extreme and outrageous manner. . We reverse and remand for trial.

From today's Supreme Court opinion, Justice Dickson writes for the majority:
This appeal challenges the trial court's grant of summary judgment which found privi-leged a restaurant employee's statements to a passerby and a police officer that a customer had "pulled a gun" inside the store. The plaintiffs, Sanford Kelsey and Thomas Williams, respective-ly, the suspected gun carrier and his companion (neither of whom actually had a gun), sued the restaurant operator, Papa John's U.S.A., Inc., and its employee, Kelly Tharp, for a variety of torts (defamation per se, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent hir-ing, and negligence) seeking damages, including punitive damages. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for trial. Williams v. Tharp, 889 N.E.2d 870 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008). We granted transfer and now affirm the trial court's judgment. * * *

Shepard, C.J., and Sullivan, J., concur. Boehm, J., dissents with separate opinion. Rucker, J., dissents with separate opinion.

[From Justice Boehm's dissent, beginning at p. 19]
I respectfully dissent. Although I believe the majority adopts the correct legal standard, I disagree with the majority’s view of the facts reasonably inferrable from the designated evi-dence. Specifically, I agree with the majority that Indiana law confers a broader qualified privilege than some jurisdictions, and requires more than reckless disregard of the truth to support a claim of defamation or false imprisonment based on an inaccurate report to a law enforcement agency of potentially criminal activity. Moreover, for the reasons the majority gives, I agree that it is appropriate to protect citizens from the expense and risks of litigation based on an incorrect report, even if the citizen should have known of the falsity of the report. But here, I believe the facts in the aggregate support the conclusion that Mr. Tharp first recklessly or knowingly made false statements to a private citizen and then knowingly repeated false allegations to law en-forcement officers. The statements to the passerby were not subject to any privilege, and their later repetition to the police was privileged only if the statements were not made with knowledge that they were false. Without a qualified privilege, summary judgment as to the claims for defamation and false imprisonment was wrongly granted, and I believe the designated evidence prec-ludes summary judgment on those issues. * * *

I agree with the Court of Appeals that summary judgment in favor of the defendants should be reversed, and this case should be remanded for trial.

[From Justice Rucker's dissent, beginning on p. 21] I agree with Justice Boehm that "the facts in the aggregate support the conclusion that Mr. Tharp first recklessly or knowingly made false statements to a private citizen and then knowingly repeated false allegations to law enforcement officers." Slip op. at __, (Boehm, J., dissenting). And I do so largely for the reasons Justice Boehm articulates. I write separately however to underscore events occurring after the trial court entered summary judgment in this case and after the plaintiffs filed their notice of appeal that seem to undermine completely Tharp’s claim of qualified privilege. * * *

At an absolute minimum Tharp’s admissions raise a ge-nuine issue of material fact on the issue. In light of what fairly may be characterized as newly discovered evidence surfacing after the trial court entered summary judgment in Tharp’s favor, this Court at the very least should reverse the trial court’s judgment and remand this cause for further proceedings. For this additional reason I respectfully dissent.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 13, 2009 03:40 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions