Hosler ex rel. Hosler v. Caterpillar, Inc.

Decision Date13 April 1999
Docket NumberNo. 91A05-9806-CV-302,91A05-9806-CV-302
Citation710 N.E.2d 193
PartiesJacob Robert HOSLER, By His Next Friend, Vickie HOSLER, Appellant-Plaintiff, v. CATERPILLAR, INC., Appellee-Defendant.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court
OPINION

SULLIVAN, Judge

Appellant, Jacob Robert Hosler (Jacob), by his next friend, Vickie Hosler (Vickie), appeals the trial court's dismissal of his wrongful death action against Appellee, Caterpillar, Inc. (Caterpillar).

We affirm.

The sole issue presented upon appeal is whether Jacob's wrongful death action is barred, where Jacob's claim was filed within two years of his father's death due to an allegedly defective product manufactured by Caterpillar but where the father's estate was not opened and no personal representative for the estate was appointed for more than two years following the father's death.

Roger Hosler (Roger) died on August 15, 1995, upon being caught under and crushed by an articulated dump truck manufactured by Caterpillar. Roger was survived by his minor son and only dependent, Jacob. Vicki is Jacob's mother and natural guardian. Roger and Vicki were divorced prior to Roger's death.

On August 12, 1997, in the White Circuit Court, Vicki filed a complaint for damages against Caterpillar as the next friend of Jacob. The complaint alleged that the articulated dump truck was defective and that Caterpillar had been negligent in, among other things, the design, manufacture, building, inspection and labeling of the truck. In addition, Vicki asserted that Caterpillar recklessly failed to provide adequate warning of the dangers and hazards of the truck and that such failure proximately caused Roger's death. Finally, she claimed that Caterpillar knew that the truck was dangerous and defective yet intentionally failed to take steps to make the product safe in order to minimize expenses and to maximize profits.

Caterpillar filed a motion to dismiss the action pursuant to Ind. Trial Rule 12(B)(6) 1 on September 8, 1997. In its brief supporting the motion to dismiss, Caterpillar claimed that neither Vickie nor any other person had been appointed personal representative of Roger's estate. Because only a personal representative may bring a wrongful death action pursuant to the Indiana Wrongful Death Act, 2 Caterpillar argued, neither Jacob nor Vicki as his next friend could properly maintain the action.

On October 20, 1997, the White Circuit Court held a hearing on the motion to dismiss. On December 12, 1997, the Cass Circuit Court appointed Vickie the personal representative of Roger's estate for the sole purpose of prosecuting a wrongful death claim against the defendant. On that same day, Vicki moved to have herself added to the instant case as an additional party. On January 26, 1998, the trial court entered its final judgment, denying Vicki's motion to add an additional plaintiff and granting Caterpillar's motion to dismiss.

A motion to dismiss pursuant to T.R. 12(B)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a claim, not the facts supporting a claim. Vakos v. Travelers Ins. (1998) Ind.App., 691 N.E.2d 499, 501, trans. denied. Upon reviewing a T.R. 12(B)(6) motion, we view the pleadings in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw every reasonable inference in favor of that party. Right Reason Publications v. Silva (1998) Ind.App., 691 N.E.2d 1347, 1349. We will affirm a T.R. 12(B)(6) dismissal when a complaint states a set of facts which, even if true, would not support the relief requested in the complaint. Id.

Appellant challenges the trial court's interpretation of Indiana's Wrongful Death Act, which provides: "When the death of one is caused by the wrongful act or omission of another, the personal representative of the former may maintain an action therefor against the latter, ... [T]he action shall be commenced by the personal representative of the decedent within two (2) years." I.C. 34-1-1-2 (Burns Code Ed. Repl.1998). 3 In dismissing the instant case, the trial court cited General Motors Corp. v. Arnett (1981) Ind.App., 418 N.E.2d 546, as controlling authority.

In Arnett, the husband died on January 28, 1978. His wife filed a wrongful death action against General Motors on May 10, 1979. However, the wife was not appointed as the personal representative of her husband's estate until May 27, 1980--four months beyond the statutory filing period. We first noted the well-established principle that an action for wrongful death is purely statutory and did not exist at common law. Arnett, supra, 418 N.E.2d at 548 (citing cases dating back to 1900). 4 Therefore, we observed that the two year time period for filing a wrongful death action is not a statute of limitations but rather is "a condition precedent to the existence of the claim." Arnett, supra at 548. Furthermore, it is clear under Indiana law that only the decedent's personal representative may prosecute a wrongful death claim. Id. (citations omitted). Because the wife--in her capacity as the personal representative of her husband's estate--did not bring a wrongful death action within two years of her husband's death, we concluded that she failed to meet the condition precedent. Id. Thus, she lost her statutorily conferred right to bring a wrongful death action against General Motors. Id.

Our decision in Arnett also concluded that neither T.R. 15(C) nor T.R. 17(A) saved the wife's wrongful death claim. T.R.15(C) allows the claim or defense asserted in an amended pleading which meets prescribed conditions to relate back to the date upon which the original complaint was filed. In Arnett, however, we determined that T.R. 15(C) did not apply "for the simple reason that it was not [the wife's] complaint which was amended, rather it was her legal status which was altered." 5 Arnett, supra, 418 N.E.2d at 548 (emphasis in original). Further, we concluded that T.R. 17(A) 6 did not control the issue of whether, as a matter of law, the wife could maintain her action. Rather, "Indiana substantive law as hereinabove discussed must be held to control over the procedural liberality contained in T.R. 17(A)." Id. at 549.

Arnett is dispositive of the issues in the instant case. Vicki's appointment as the personal representative of Roger's estate within two years of his death was a condition precedent to prosecuting a wrongful death action against Caterpillar for Jacob's benefit. "An action for wrongful death must be brought within two years of the date of death.... In Indiana this two year time period is not a statute of limitations but a condition precedent to the existence of the claim." Southerland v. Hammond (1998) Ind.App., 693 N.E.2d 74, 76-77 (citing Arnett, supra, 418 N.E.2d at 548). Vicki failed to meet this statutory condition precedent for prosecuting a wrongful death claim. The trial court having determined that such condition had not been met, it rightfully concluded that appellant's action should be dismissed for lack of a legally sufficient claim. 7

Appellant contends that Caterpillar lacked standing to challenge the status of Roger's estate, because Caterpillar had "no rightful expectation or right to the protection of any statutory or procedural estate safeguard set up to protect heirs of a deceased." Appellant's Brief at 8. 8 "The judicial doctrine of standing focuses on whether the complaining party is the proper person to invoke the court's power." Hauer v. BRDD of Ind., Inc. (1995) Ind.App., 654 N.E.2d 316, 317, trans. denied. "Standing is similar to, though not identical with, the real party in interest requirement of [Indiana] Trial Rule 17." Pence v. State (1995) Ind., 652 N.E.2d 486, 487, reh'g denied. "Both are threshold requirements intended to insure that the party before the court has the substantive right to enforce the claim being asserted." Fort Wayne Educ. Ass'n v. Indiana Dep't of Educ. (1998) Ind.App., 692 N.E.2d 902, 904 (citing Pence, supra at 487), trans. denied. "Under the traditional private standing doctrine, a party must demonstrate both a personal stake in the outcome of the lawsuit and, at a minimum, that he is in immediate danger of sustaining some direct injury as a result of the conduct at issue." Fort Wayne, supra at 904.

Caterpillar possessed proper standing to challenge the legal sufficiency of the claim based upon the status of Roger's estate. The suit sought to hold the defendant responsible for the wrongful death of Jacob's father. Thus Caterpillar, facing the immediate danger of suffering a direct injury if found responsible for Roger's death, had a substantial interest in the suit's outcome. Caterpillar had no specific interest in Roger's estate per se; however, in the context of defending a lawsuit, it possessed a substantial interest in whether the estate existed and whether Vicki had been appointed personal representative of the estate. It was proper under the circumstances for Caterpillar to challenge whether Vicki, as Jacob's next friend, had the substantive right to enforce a wrongful death claim against it. 9

T.R. 15(C) may not be used to save the wrongful death claim from dismissal. As we observed in Arnett, amending a complaint pursuant to T.R. 15(C) does not alter a party's legal status. Arnett, supra, 418 N.E.2d at 549. Even had Vicki been permitted to amend her complaint, her appointment as Roger's personal representative could not have related back to the filing of her original complaint for purposes of prosecuting a wrongful death action against Caterpillar. See also, Honda Motor Co., Ltd. v. Parks (1985) Ind.App., 485 N.E.2d 644, 647 n. 2 ("It is clear under Indiana law, T.R. 15(C) may not be utilized to substitute a qualified plaintiff in a wrongful death case for an unqualified one after the expiration of two years."), reh'g denied; Warrick Hosp., Inc. v. Wallace (1982) Ind.App, 435 N.E.2d 263, 268 (...

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