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Indiana Supreme Court: No Duty to Protect Against Certain Criminal Acts

Litigation Alert Lucy R. Dollens, Jacob Bradley

The Indiana Supreme Court issued its opinion in Goodwin v. Yeakle's Sports Bar and Grill, Inc., clarifying 25 years of confusing and, at times, apparently-contradictory case law. In Goodwin, a case that was closely watched by both the plaintiffs' and defense bar, the Indiana Supreme Court held that, in some negligence cases, the foreseeability of the criminal act must be determined as a component of duty. And in such cases, because whether a duty exists is a question of law for the court to decide, the court must determine whether the criminal act at issue was foreseeable. The Court also held that a shooting in a neighborhood bar is not foreseeable as a matter of law.

In Goodwin, the three plaintiffs were socializing with friends in the defendant's bar. Another patron became offended by something one of the plaintiffs said. That patron pulled a gun and shot at the plaintiff who made the remark; the other two plaintiffs were accidentally shot, too. At the trial court, the defendant bar moved for summary judgment, arguing the shooter's criminal acts were unforeseeable; consequently, the bar did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiffs. The trial court agreed and entered summary judgment in favor of the bar.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, noting foreseeability is not part of the duty analysis and recognizing that this issue has caused confusion throughout Indiana courts. The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer to resolve the confusion.

After analyzing the string of cases dating back to 1991 that created the apparent confusion, the Indiana Supreme Court held that foreseeability is as much a part of the proximate cause element of negligence as it is a component of the duty element of negligence. Because the existence of a duty is a question of law for the court, the court must necessarily decide whether the criminal act was foreseeable. Importantly, in order to conduct this review, the court must assess whether there is some probability or likelihood of harm that is serious enough to induce a reasonable person to take precautions to avoid it. Unlike foreseeability as a component of proximate cause — which requires a fact-finder to evaluate the facts of the actual occurrence — the foreseeability component of duty requires a more general analysis of the broad type of plaintiff and harm involved, without regard to the facts of the actual occurrence. Ultimately, if the court determines the criminal act was not foreseeable, no duty exists.

Applying this analysis tothe case at bar, the Indiana Supreme Court further held that a shooting in a neighborhood bar is, as a matter of law, not foreseeable. Click here to learn more. The opinion adopts the result advocated and follows the reasoning espoused in the amicus curiae brief filed on behalf of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana by Quarles & Brady attorneys Lucy Dollens ([email protected]/(317) 399-2815) and Jake Bradley ([email protected](317) 399-2884).

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