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Indiana Court of Appeals Finds Mother of Sexually Abused Child Is Not Entitled to Emotional Distress Damages Under Indiana Law

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently reviewed whether under Indiana law the mother of a disabled child who was sexually abused by a school instructional assistant could bring a claim for the emotional distress she experienced as a result of her child’s sexual abuse. In K.G. by Next Friend Ruch v. Smith, Melody Ruch (“Ruch”) filed a lawsuit individually and on behalf of her daughter, K.G., arising out of sexual abuse of K.G. by Morgan Smith (“Smith”), an instructional assistant at New Augusta North Public Academy. New Augusta North Public Academy and the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township (the “School Defendants”) filed a motion for summary judgment on the individual claims brought by Ruch, including her emotional distress claim. After the trial court granted the School Defendants’ motion, Ruch appealed.

Indiana law allows for the recovery of damages for mental distress or emotional trauma under the traditional impact rule, the modified impact rule, and the bystander rule. Under the traditional impact rule, a plaintiff can recover if the plaintiff can prove (1) an impact on the plaintiff, (2) which causes physical injury to the plaintiff, and (3) which physical injury, in turn, causes the emotional distress. Under the modified impact rule, a plaintiff can recover if the plaintiff suffers a direct impact by another’s negligence, and by reason of that direct involvement suffers an emotional trauma which is serious in nature and of a kind and extent normally expected to occur in a reasonable person, without regard to whether the emotional distress arises out of or accompanies any physical injury to the plaintiff. Under the bystander rule, a plaintiff can recover if he or she actually witnessed or came on the scene soon after the death or severe injury of a loved one, with a relationship to the plaintiff analogous to a spouse, parent, child, grandparent, grandchild or sibling, caused by a defendant’s wrongful conduct, even if he or she was not directly impacted.

In this case, Ruch conceded she could not recover emotional distress damages under the traditional impact rule, the modified impact rule, or the bystander rule, as she was not touched by Smith and did not witness the sexual abuse. However, Ruch argued that Indiana should adopt another rule providing for recovery in cases in which the wrongful conduct would never be witnessed, such as sexual abuse, which occurs in secret. Ruch argued Indiana should allow for recovery when “(1) the genuineness of a claim is beyond question, (2) the facts present a unique and rare occurrence, and (3) the tort would never happen with a witness present.” Unfortunately, the Indiana Court of Appeals rejected Ruch’s invitation to expand the parameters of recoveries for emotional distress damages. The Court also held the Article I, Section 12 of the Indiana Constitution did not require recognition of such claims if not otherwise recognized by law.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did find, however, that the trial court erred in awarding summary judgment to the School Defendants on all of Ruch’s individual claims, as Ruch claimed that, in addition to emotional damages, she “incurred expenses for the placement of [K.G.] in a chronic care facility.” Under Indiana law, an injury to a minor child creates two causes of action, one for the injured minor for personal injuries and one for a parent for loss of services. While the School Defendants argued on appeal that Ruch failed to plead a derivative claim for economic damages, the Court found Ruch’s allegation was sufficient to plead a claim for economic damages. The Court noted the trial court granted summary judgment on all Ruch’s claims even though the School Defendants had not even moved for summary judgment on Ruch’s economic damages claims.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. You can read the full opinion here.

 

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