INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that a wrongful death lawsuit over the drowning of an 18-year-old woman at her church pastors' family pool can proceed to trial.
In a 3-0 decision, the appellate court rejected the claim of Family Christian Center Pastors Stephen Munsey and Melodye Munsey that babysitter Domonique "Nikki" Smith was their employee, and therefore Smith's mother, Vicki Olds, only could seek damages for Smith's death through the state's Worker's Compensation Board.
Appeals Judge Edward Najam Jr. evaluated Smith's employment status for the court and determined after a 10-factor analysis that Smith was an independent contractor and not an employee of the Munster church or the Munseys.
In particular, Najam said Smith's status as a full-time Valparaiso University student and dining hall employee, her irregular work hours as a church babysitter, her ability to decide whether to accept or reject babysitting jobs, the fact that she was paid for each job and no pay was withheld for taxes tipped the scales in favor of her status as an independent contractor.
As a result, the appeals court concluded that Lake Superior Judge John Pera did not err when he refused to dismiss Olds' wrongful death lawsuit against the church and the Munseys.
Olds' attorney, Trent McCain, said he was confident the appeals court would find in favor of his client.
"As a mother who lost her only child, Vicki is gratified that she will finally get her day in court to hold those responsible for her daughter's death to account," McCain said.
Olds alleges that suspicious circumstances surround the investigation into her daughter's 2015 drowning death, and claims the Munseys were negligent in caring for her daughter, a former lifeguard, who was baby-sitting the pastors' grandchild at the time of her death.
The Lake County coroner ruled Smith's death an accidental drowning.
Family Christian Center and the Munseys still can request that the Indiana Supreme Court review the appellate decision.