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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court issues three opinions (perhaps four?) this afternoon, all related [Updated with 4th opinion]

In Margaret Kosarko v. William A. Padula, Administrator of the Estate of Daniel L. Herndobler, Deceased, a 9-page, 5-0 opinion, Chief Justice Dickson writes:

The plaintiff in this case, Margaret Kosarko, challenges the trial court's denial of her motion for prejudgment interest following a jury verdict awarding her monetary damages. We reverse and hold that the Tort Prejudgment Interest Statute abrogates and supplants the common law prejudgment interest rules in cases covered by the statute. * * *

We hold that the Tort Prejudgment Interest Statute abrogates and supplants the common law prejudgment interest rules in cases covered by the statute and also hold that the plaintiff's motion for prejudgment interest should have been evaluated as provided in the statute, and not on abrogated common law. We remand the case to the trial court for reconsideration of the motion accordingly. On remand, the trial court has broad discretion to determine whether to award prejudgment interest, what interest rate to use, what time period to use, and whether to calculate interest on the full $210,000 awarded by the jury, or on the amount of $100,000, representing insurance liability coverage limits, that was deposited with the clerk and released to Kosarko. The trial court's discretion is restricted only by the limits expressly enacted by the legislature in the TPIS.

In Jacqueline Wisner, M.D. and The South Bend Clinic, L.L.P. v. Archie L. Laney, a 16-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice David writes:
In this case, the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff in the amount of $1.75 million. The issues presented focus on two separate, but significant, matters.

The first is whether the trial court erred by denying defendants’1 motion for a new trial based upon the cumulative effect of plaintiff’s counsel’s alleged unprofessional conduct during the trial. The second issue is whether the trial court erred when it refused to grant plaintiff prejudgment interest.

We affirm the trial court, as did the Court of Appeals, on the denial of defendants’ motion for a new trial. Under the circumstances of this case, we defer to the judgment of the trial court. However, this decision does not lesson our dissatisfaction and frustration with the behavior of counsel during the trial, particularly plaintiff’s counsel.

Professionalism and civility are not optional behaviors to be displayed only when one is having a good day. Professionalism and civility are the mainstays of our profession and the foundations upon which lawyers practice law. The public expects it. Fellow lawyers expect it. Our profession demands it.

Further, we affirm the trial court’s decision to deny the discretionary award of prejudgment interest. * * *

[ILB: See ftnote 3 on p. 8 "The acrimony between plaintiff’s and defendants’ counsel did not end at the trial. During the June 2010 hearing on the motion to correct error, the poor behavior began anew. Mr. Murphy accused Mr. Schaffer of bragging about his numerous sanctions having no effect on him, describing his conduct as unprofessional and making gestures during the trial, while Mr. Schaffer called Mr. Murphy an “outright liar” on two occasions."]

Although plaintiff’s counsel’s behavior was most troubling, both attorneys should have acted in a manner more becoming of our profession. The duty to zealously represent our clients is not a license to be unprofessional. Here the trial court determined that the conduct of counsel did not prevent the jury from rendering a fair and just verdict. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendants’ counsel’s request for a new trial. We also affirm the trial court denial of plaintiff’s request for prejudgment interest. Laney’s 2005 letter did not meet the requirements for awarding of prejudgment interest. The awarding of prejudgment interest is not mandatory and is left to the discretion of the trial court. The trial court was most certainly within its proper discretion in declining such an award.

In Hassan Alsheik v. Alice Guerrero, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of I.A., Deceased, a 6-page opinion, Justice David writes:
In this companion case to Wisner v. Laney, Inman v. State Farm, and Kosarko v. Padula, all decided today, we discuss the issue of prejudgment interest, specifically the statutory requirements of Indiana Code section 34-51-4-6, and the discretionary nature of an award of prejudgment interest. * * *

We summarily affirm the Court of Appeals opinion relating to the second autopsy, the expert witness, and the admission of photographs. Its analysis was detailed and correct. We reverse the trial court’s decision to deny Guerrero prejudgment interest based upon a defective settlement letter. As we have held, Guerrero’s settlement letter did comply with Indiana Code section 34-51-4-6. However, the award of prejudgment interest is neither automatic nor required, and is left to the discretion of the trial court. We remand with instructions to the trial court to determine whether or not Guerrero should be entitled to prejudgment interest.

ILB: Inman v. State Farm, mentioned in the first line of Alsheik, above, has not been posted by the Court yet.

[Updated at 3:00 PM] The Inman opinion has now been posted.

In Kathy Inman v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, a 9-page opinion, Chief Justice Dickson writes:

The plaintiff, Kathy Inman, challenges the trial court's denial of her motion for prejudg-ment interest in the amount of $3,616.44 pursuant to Indiana Code Chapter 34-51-4. Inman's appeal raises two questions regarding the scope of the Tort Prejudgment Interest Statute ("TPIS"), Ind. Code §§ 34-51-4-1 to -9: whether the TPIS applies to an action by an insured against an insurer to recover benefits under the insured's underinsured motorist ("UIM") policy; and whether prejudgment interest can be awarded in excess of the policy limits set forth in an insured's UIM policy. Having granted transfer, we hold that the TPIS does apply to UIM coverage disputes because they are properly considered "civil actions arising out of tortious conduct" as required by Indiana Code Section 34-51-4-1. We also hold that, because prejudgment interest is a collateral litigation expense, it can be awarded in excess of an insured's UIM policy limits. We conclude, however, that Inman is not entitled to prejudgment interest because the trial court acted within its discretion when it denied her request for prejudgment interest. * * *

Conclusion. Through its passage of the TPIS, the legislature has enacted a scheme which affords trial courts wide-ranging discretion to award prejudgment interest in civil actions arising out of tortious conduct, a broad category of cases which includes UIM coverage disputes. The trial court alone has discretion to determine whether to award prejudgment interest and what time period and interest rate to use in its computation. This discretion is not limited by insurance policy limits, the good-faith conduct of the parties, or the common law.[7] Rather, it is limited only by the statutory requirements enumerated in Indiana Code Sections 34-51-4-1 to -9. Because the trial court here acted within its statutory discretion in denying Inman's request for prejudgment interest, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.
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[7] In another case handed down today, Kosarko v. Padula, ___ N.E.2d. ___, ___ (Ind. 2012), we hold that the TPIS "abrogates and supplants the common law rules governing the availability of prejudgment interest in cases covered by the statute." Kosarko, ___ N.E.2d at ___. Thus, in cases where pre-judgment interest is requested under the TPIS, the common law Roper standard, requiring damages to be complete and readily ascertainable in order for prejudgment interest to be awarded, N.Y., Chi. & St. Louis Ry. Co. v. Roper, 176 Ind. 497, 507, 96 N.E. 468, 472 (1911), is irrelevant to the trial court's determination.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 12, 2012 02:12 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions