Indiana Supreme Court Adopts New Rule Allowing Mother of Sexually Abused Child to Recover Emotional Distress Damages

We previously wrote on the Indiana Court of Appeals opinion in K.G. by Next Friend Ruch v. Smith in which the Indiana Court of Appeals held that Melody Ruch (“Ruch”) could not recover damages for emotional distress arising from the sexual abuse of her child. Ruch’s disabled child was sexually abused by a school instructional assistant who later plead guilty to child molesting. Ruch filed a lawsuit against Morgan Smith (“Smith”), the assistant, the school, and the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township (collectively “School Defendants”). The School Defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that Ruch could not recover for her emotional distress under Indiana’s traditional impact rule, the modified impact rule, or the bystander rule.

Indiana’s traditional impact rule requires a plaintiff 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. The modified impact rule requires a plaintiff prove a direct impact, and because of that direct involvement an emotional trauma serious enough to affect a reasonable person, without regard to whether the emotional distress arises out of or accompanies any physical injury to the plaintiff. Indiana’s bystander rule requires a plaintiff prove (1) serious injury or death to a victim, (2) a close familial relationship with the victim, and (3) direct observation of the incident or its immediate “gruesome aftermath,” rather than learning of the incident by indirect means.

The trial court granted the School Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and on appeal the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, finding Ruch’s claim for emotional distress did not fall within any of the appliable rules. The Indiana Supreme Court, however, granted transfer and adopted a new rule: when a caretaker assumes responsibility for a child, and when that caretaker owes a duty of care to the child’s parent or guardian, a claim against the caretaker for the negligent infliction of emotional distress may proceed when the parent or guardian later discovers, with irrefutable certainty, that the caretaker sexually abused that child and when that abuse severely impacted the parent or guardian’s emotional health. To satisfy the rule, a plaintiff must show (1) that the tortfeasor had a duty of care to the parent or guardian; (2) that there is irrefutable certainty of the act’s commission; (3) that the tortious act is one rarely, if ever, witnessed by the parent or guardian; and (4) that the abuse severely impacted the parent or guardian’s emotional health. Irrefutable certainty under the Court’s new rule requires an admission to the abuse by the caretaker to a person of authority, a finding of abuse by a judge, or the caretaker’s conviction for the abuse.

In adopting its new rule, the Indiana Supreme Court first discussed the evolution of Indiana’s common-law rules governing emotional distress claims and the policy reasons behind them and why the circumstances of this case supported a limited expansion with a narrow rule and why such a rule does not implicate public-policy concerns. The Court then held Ruch’s claim satisfied the Court’s new rule. The Court found the School Defendants owed a duty of care to Ruch as K.G.’s parent, the school assistant Smith confessed to the sexual abuse and later plead guilty to child molesting, the sexual abuse of K.G. was hidden from Ruch, and Ruch’s discovery of the abuse severely impacted her mental health. The Court also found Ruch adequately plead her claim for economic damages and the School Defendants did not establish an absence of a genuine issue of material fact as to her economic damages claim. Accordingly, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

You can read the full opinion here.



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