Indiana Supreme Court Holds Mentally Ill Patient Who Pled Guilty to Voluntary Manslaughter Cannot Succeed in Claims Against Health Care Providers

The Indiana Supreme Court recently examined whether an individual who pleaded guilty but mentally ill to voluntary manslaughter can sue his mental health providers for negligence and emotional distress. The case presented quite a complicated procedural and factual history and, ultimately, generated a strongly worded dissent by the Chief Justice.

By way of background, Plaintiff, Zachary Miller (Miller) pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the voluntary manslaughter of his grandfather, which left his grandmother, Betty Miller, widowed. The conduct and killing arising out of Miller’s actions generated two previous appeals arising out of the same conduct. In Miller I, a case we previously blogged about here, the Court found that the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act’s (EMTALA) statute of limitations did not preempt a state rule allowing for amendments relating back to an original pleading. Next, in Miller II, which opinion can be found here, the Indiana Court of Appeals, in reviewing Betty Miller’s claim arising out of her husband’s death, found Zachary Miller’s mental health providers were not immune from liability under two statutory provisions for failing to warn or take precautions to protect others from a patient’s violent behavior.

In the subject of this blog, Miller v. Patel, et al. decided on June 29, 2023 (Miller III), the Court first examined the case background. Miller, who suffered from severe mental illness, killed his grandfather in January 2017 after receiving allegedly negligent care from his mental health providers. Miller pleaded guilty but mentally ill to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, 12 executed. Miller filed a civil lawsuit against his providers, alleging that they failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care and caused him permanent injuries, pain, emotional distress, and loss of freedom from his incarceration. A medical review panel found that the providers were negligent, and their conduct was a factor of Miller’s damages. However, the trial court granted summary judgment for the providers, finding that Miller’s damages were not compensable under Indiana public policy and that he was estopped from relitigating his responsibility for the crime. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that 1) the providers failed to show there were no genuine issues of material fact and 2) collateral estoppel did not apply to Miller’s guilty plea.

The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment ruling finding Miller could not recover damages arising from the crime. Specifically, the Court found Miller was estopped from relitigating his legal responsibility under defensive issue preclusion, because his guilty plea has the same preclusive effect as a trial verdict, and he had a full and fair opportunity to litigate his legal responsibility in his criminal case. Moreover, the Court held that Miller could not recover damages that stem, in whole or in part, from his criminal conduct, because such damages are barred by Indiana public policy under the wrongful-acts doctrine, which prevents plaintiffs from imposing liability on others for the consequences of their own illegal or immoral acts. The Court also held that Miller waived his argument about his pre-criminal act damages, because he did not adequately raise or support it in his motion opposing summary judgment or in his appellate brief.

Writing separately, Chief Justice Rush concurred in part with the majority’s application of the wrongful-acts doctrine, noting she was “open to examining the tension between the doctrine and the principles of comparative fault in a future case.” She observed that under Indiana’s comparative fault scheme as applied to a wrongful-acts doctrine situation, “the issues of fault and causation may appear vexing, but the factfinder—not a detached appellate court—is best equipped to assess the array of factors” involved in the decision to allocate fault.

She dissented from the majority’s opinion, however, arguing she did not believe that Miller had waived his argument contesting the entry of summary judgment on his claims for pre-criminal act damages, because the providers did not move for summary judgment on those claims and Miller raised those claims before the trial court and on appeal. She asserted that “not only has Miller not waived his argument, but it is also meritorious,” citing Miller’s designation of the medical review panel’s unanimous finding that leading up to Miller’s criminal act, the Providers “failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care” and that the failure “was a factor” of Miller’s damages.

Finally, she dissented from the majority’s opinion that Miller’s claims for pre-criminal act damages were barred. She argued the claims should not be barred by Indiana public policy or collateral estoppel, because they are based on the providers’ negligence prior to the offense and do not rely on Miller’s criminal act. She concluded that summary judgment was inappropriate because there were genuine issues of material fact regarding Miller’s pre-criminal act damages and whether he was criminally insane when he killed his grandfather. Chief Justice Rush further criticized the majority for applying a rigid and unfair version of collateral estoppel that ignores the circumstances of Miller’s guilty plea that she found “antithetical” to the Court’s role in reviewing summary judgment to ensure a litigant is not deprived of his day in court.

You can read the majority’s decision and Chief Justice Rush’s concurrence and dissent here.

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