The Indiana Supreme Court recently rendered an opinion dealing with the concepts of public school liability and contributory negligence. In Funston v. School Town of Munster, the hoosier high court ruled that the defendant school corporation was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law based upon the facts presented. Because the case arises in a setting which will be familiar to many readers, and also because the ruling might be considered to be an interesting and/or debatable one, I've decided to briefly summarize it here for your consideration.
The plaintiff, Howard Funston, was injured when he fell from the top row of a set of bleachers while watching his son participate in an AAU basketball game at the Munster High School gymnasium. As a result of his injuries, he filed a legal complaint against the school, claiming that the school was negligent in providing bleachers which did not have any back railing at the top. Significantly, Mr. Funston had been at the gym for about four hours prior to his fall, watching two basketball games. During the earlier games, he sat on a lower row on another set of bleachers, leaning back against the seats behind him.
In order to watch his son's third game that day, Mr. Funston switched to a new set of bleachers, and went to the top row for a better view. He claimed that he never noticed that there was no railing there. After sitting on the top row, he decided to get a bit more comfortable. He crossed his legs, leaned back, and toppled off of the bleachers. When asked in deposition about his conduct, Mr. Funston testified:
Logically, I would think there would be a back there. I had sat on the other bleachers and I didn't sit at the top and I had leaned back in several of those bleachers on the next step.....I thought there was something back there....I'm not sure what I thought was back there at the time.
Under Indiana law, a governmental entity, such as a school corporation, is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if it can establish that the person bringing suit is responsible for any negligence which contributed to the injury. After hearing all of the evidence presented, the Judge of the Lake Superior Court determined that the school corporaton had met its burden, and entered summary judgment in its favor.
On appeal, the The Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed. It reversed the Lake Superior Court Judge, finding that there were conflicting inferences as to whether Mr. Funston had been negligent. The appeals court felt that the matter should be submitted to a jury for its opinon.
The matter was then appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court. Writing for the majority, Justice Brent Dickson reinstated the opinion of the trial court judge. The majority held that, as a matter of law, Mr. Funston was at least negligent to some degree in failing to realize that there was no railing behind him before he decided to lean back and get comfortable.
The lawyers for Mr. Funston argued that a reasonable spectator could be distracted by the game and lean back as Mr. Funston did. They argued, therefore, that Mr. Funston's conduct was reasonable under the circumstances. In commenting upon this agument, Justice Dickson stated, "It is certainly understandable that Mr. Funston would be distracted as he engaged his attention on his son's basketball game. But being understandable does not equate with being completely free of all negligence. We find from the undisputed facts that that only a single inference can be reasonably drawn: Mr. Funston was negligent to some degree."
As is noted previously, this decision was not rendered without some controversy. Justice Rucker of the Supreme Court wrote a separate, dissenting opinon in which he agreed with the prior opinion by the Indiana Court of Appeals. In his view, Mr. Funston and his atttorneys had presented sufficient evidence to allow the matter to go forward to be presented to a jury. He noted that summary judgment is rarely appropriate in negligence cases, and opined that Mr. Funston should have been allowed his day in court.
I tend to agree with Justice Dickson and the majority of the Indiana Supreme Court on this one. It seems to me that Mr. Funston should be held responsible for his own actions in failing to notice the absence of a railing. There was no inherent defect in the railing; it only became dangerous because Mr. Funston failed to look out for his own safety.
The majority of the Indiana Supreme Court has spoken. Mr. Funston's case has been dismissed, and his claims will never be heard by an Indiana jury. What's more, his case will now be considered as binding precedent on future Indiana courts which consider this issue.