Indiana’s high court hears Mexican man’s lost-wages case

The attorney for a Mexican man who's seeking lost future earnings for a workplace back injury told Indiana's high court Tuesday that his client's immigration status is irrelevant and could sway jurors to rule against him in his civil suit.

Noe Escamilla's attorney said the case involving his client, who entered the United States illegally with his parents at age 15, should turn on the future earnings his injury cost him, and not immigration issues.

Attorney Timothy Devereux told the state Supreme Court that allowing into evidence Escamilla's immigration status could lead a jury to rule against him. He said immigration issues involve "a politically-charged debate" that can sway jurors.

"This is an issue that once someone hears it, many times their eyes gloss over and they stop considering the other facts," Devereux told the justices.

Escamilla sued Indianapolis-based construction company Shiel Sexton for lost future wages after he slipped on ice in 2010 and severely injured his back while helping lift a heavy masonry capstone at Wabash College in Crawfordsville. Court documents say a doctor found Escamilla's injury left him unable to lift more than 20 pounds, effectively ending his career as a masonry laborer.

Shiel Sexton wants to introduce evidence it says shows that Escamilla fraudulently landed his job with a masonry company, which was one of its subcontractors on the college project, by using a fake Social Security number.

Shiel Sexton attorney John Mervilde told the justices that the company believes Escamilla's immigration status is relevant in his civil suit, and a jury should be allowed to consider that information among the many factors it might weigh in determining lost future earnings.

"We're comfortable with the idea that this will be a complicated issue," Mervilde told the court.

Because Escamilla is a lawful resident of Mexico, Shiel Sexton argues that any lost wages he is able to claim should be based on the rate of pay available in Mexico, and not U.S. wages.

Devereux said Escamilla, who is married to a U.S. citizen and has three children who are also American citizens, has applied for permanent U.S. residency and is registered with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He said that makes him a "documented" person who is legally entitled to be in the U.S., and faces only a very slim chance of being deported.

A Montgomery County trial court ruled last year in Shiel Sexton's favor, finding that two witnesses who reviewed Escamilla's U.S. tax returns could not testify about his lost earnings and that his immigration status could be entered as evidence.

Escamilla's civil case is on hold until his challenges to those rulings are resolved. He asked the state Supreme Court to take up his case after Indiana's Court of Appeals in March essentially upheld the trial court rulings.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush said the justices would consider Tuesday's arguments, but did not indicate when they might rule.

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