Indiana State Supreme Court Rules on Wrongful Death Trial Court Order Balancing Conflicting Constitutional Interests | Indianapolis, IN
In Estate of Meux v. Cozmanoff, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court order that Defendant be required to answer Plaintiff’s Complaint in an effort to balance conflicting constitutional interests.
On March 6, 2012 Britney Meux was struck by a car operated by Jason R. Cozmanoff while jogging with three co-workers. Mr. Cozmanoff fled the scene of the accident and Britney later died from her injuries. Mr. Cozmanoff was criminally charged with thirteen crimes.
Weeks later a civil suit was filed against Mr. Cozmanoff by the administrators of Ms. Meux’s estate for gross negligence and/or willful and wanton misconduct.
Adverse parties assert different constitutional interests
Cozmanoff was conflicted as information and testimony given to Plaintiffs during discovery could be used against him by the prosecutor in his criminal trial. But if he were to invoke the Fifth Amendment guaranteeing protection from being called as a witness against himself in the civil suit, the trier of fact could have inferred Defendant’s responsibility for the wrongful death of Britney Meux.
Defendant Cozmanoff moved the trial court for a stay of all civil proceedings pending a resolution of his criminal prosecution citing the Fifth Amendment privilege.
“The Fifth Amendment, incorporated to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 6 (1964)” states as follows:
“…protects the individual against being involuntarily called as a witness against himself in a criminal prosecution but also privileges him not to answer official questions put to him in any other proceeding, civil or criminal, formal or informal, where the answers might incriminate him in future criminal proceedings.”
U.S.C.A. Const. Amends. 5, 14
The Plaintiff opposed his motion arguing the following:
- Defendant Cozmanoff’s criminal case might not be resolved for years;
- Discovery was necessary to identify other potential tortfeasors who must be joined to the case before the two-year statute of limitations ran; and
- The stay would offend Article 1, Section 12 of the Indiana State Constitution guaranteeing “Justice shall be administered freely…and without delay.” [Emphasis Added]
The civil trial court granted a limited stay of discovery as to Cozmanoff only but having done so ordered the Defendant to respond to Plaintiffs’ Complaint. Plaintiffs would still be free to investigate “outside the context of formal discovery.”
On March 12, 2014, The Indiana State Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling, finding reasoning to support the trial court’s decision in the matter of The Estate of Meux v. Cozmanoff as follows:
“When two adverse parties each assert different constitutional interests, the court must consider each interest ‘in the light of the other, and in the context of the issues and interests at stake.’ Hostetter v. Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp., 377 U.S. 324, 332 (1964).”
The opinion further states:
“Our ruling today does not mean the trial court was constitutionally required to impose the stay;simply that it did not abuse its discretion by so doing.”
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The attorneys at Ward & Ward Law Firm have over 85 years of combined experience in wrongful death litigation. Often, person’s alleged to be responsible for the wrongful death of another, must face criminal prosecution while simultaneously undergoing civil suit. Our attorneys maintain an up-to-date working knowledge of legislation and rulings and utilize every legal tool at our disposal to uncover the truth and analyze the facts of a case including private investigators, witness interviews, testimony undertaken by deposition and discovery of physical evidence and documentation through the Freedom of Information Act.
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