Court of Appeals Considers Sufficiency of Notice to City Under Indiana Tort Claims Act

As attorneys for Tippecanoe County, we have had a considerable amount of experience with the Indiana Tort Claims Act (found at IC 34-13-3.) Court of Appeals decisions concerning ITCA are, therefore, always of some interest. On July 9, 2015, the Indiana Court of Appeals issued the memorandum decision of Stierwalt v. Barton (pdf). Because it’s a memorandum decision, it cannot be cited as precedent. However, it does offer insight into how similar cases are likely to turn out.

ITCA contains notice provisions that must be observed if an individual plans to sue a political subdivision such as a city or county. Within 180 days after the loss occurs, notice has to be filed with the governing body of the political subdivision. The notice given to the governing body must include “the circumstances which brought about the loss, the extent of the loss, the time and place the loss occurred, the names of all persons involved if known, the amount of the damages sought, and the residence of the person making the claim at the time of the loss and at the time of filing the notice.”

In this case, an employee of the City of Linton was in a car accident that caused injury to Stierwalt. The city’s insurer contacted Stierwalt and requested information about his injury. Stierwalt obtained a lawyer who began communicating regularly with the insurer. Stierwalt’s lawyer also sent the city police department a letter indicating that he represented Stierwalt with respect to an accident that took place on July 29, 2013, enclosing $5, and requesting a copy of the police report. After completing treatment by February 2014, Stierwalt cited expenses of approximately $6,000 and demanded $75,000 from the city’s insurer. The insurer asked for a copy of the tort claim notice filed with the city and, when one was not forthcoming, denied the claim.

The trial court and, subsequently, the Court of Appeals held that these communications did not satisfy the statutory notice requirements. Actual knowledge of the accident and injury does not satisfy ITCA. While the courts will give plaintiffs some leeway within the confines of the statutory requirements, there must be some formal notice to the governing body and it must, in some fashion, represent an effort to satisfy the notice requirements as to the circumstances, the extent, the time and place of the loss, the names of people involved, the amount of damages, and the residence of the claimant. Communications with an insurer and a request for a police report did not meet the threshold.

The upshot is that there are special requirements for litigation involving local government. Experience in this area is helpful. Have a question concerning local government? Contact us.