The Indiana Supreme Court recently reversed the Indiana Court of Appeals’ denial of a medical malpractice claimant’s request to amend her complaint to allege a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1395dd, a federal law also known as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (“EMTALA”). The claimant, Betty Miller, had sued various health-care providers under medical malpractice theories claiming her mentally ill grandson, Zachary Miller, should not have been released from Community Howard Regional Health Hospital’s (“Community Howard”) emergency room after he had arrived at Community Howard’s emergency room requesting admission for his mental illness and dangerous propensities. She later sought to amend her complaint to include an EMTALA claim.
EMTALA was enacted by Congress to deter hospitals from the practice “dumping” indigent patients. EMTALA provides that a hospital emergency department must screen individuals for “emergency medical condition[s]” and either stabilize the condition or transfer the patient as permitted under the law. However, relevant to the issue presented, any legal claim under the law must be brought no more than two years after the date of the violation.
Federal law can preempt state law either implicitly or explicitly when provisions of the federal and state laws are at odds. EMTALA contains an express preemption provision which provides that “this section does not preempt any State or local law requirement, except to the extent that requirement directly conflicts with a requirement of this section.” 42 U.S.C. § 1395dd(f). A year before Miller, in Williams v. Inglis, the Indiana Court of Appeals had held that EMTALA’s two-year statute of limitations preempted Indiana Trial Rule 15(C)’s provision allowing amendments to timely-filed complaints to relate back to the time the complaint was filed. In, other words, in Williams, the Court of Appeals had held that because EMTALA provided a claim had to be filed within two years after the violation, this conflicted with the otherwise liberal right to amend a complaint under Indiana law and refused to allow an amendment to relate back to add an EMTALA claim after the two years. And, the Indiana Supreme Court had refused to consider Williams’ request for review, so the Court of Appeals had simply followed its past precedent in Miller to deny the same request. Luckily for Miller, unlike in Williams, the Indiana Supreme Court agreed to accept her appeal of the issue in her petition to transfer.