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Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act Applies to Malpractice Claims by Persons Who Did Not Receive Medical Care but Who Were Injured as a Result of Negligent Medical Care Provided to Another Person

We previously blogged about the Seventh Circuit’s certified question to the Indiana Supreme Court: “Whether Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act applies to claims brought against qualified providers for individuals who did not receive medical care from the provider, but who are injured as a result of the provider’s negligence in providing medical treatment to someone else?” In Cutchin v. Beard, the Indiana Supreme Court answered this question in the affirmative.

The Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund will often take the position in claims for excess compensation that the Medical Malpractice Act does not apply when it would mean escaping liability for otherwise viable claims. In Cutchin, the Fund secured a dismissal of the excess damages claim brought against it by Jeffrey Cutchin. Cutchin had settled a malpractice claim with a qualified medical provider who had negligently prescribed opiates and other medications to Sylvian Watson. Watson had run a red light and killed Cutchin’s wife and daughter. Watson claimed she could not lift her foot from the accelerator in time to stop her vehicle due to the opiates and other medications prescribed by the provider. Despite the settlement, the Fund sought to avoid paying excess damages. Upon appeal of the federal district court’s ruling, the Seventh Circuit certified the above question, as well as another that went unanswered.

In arriving at its decision, the Indiana Supreme Court first addressed the Act’s definition of “patient” found in Indiana Code Section 34-18-2-22: “an individual who receives or should have received health care from a health care provider, under a contract, express or implied, and includes a person having a claim of any kind, whether derivative or otherwise, as a result of alleged malpractice on the part of a health care provider. Derivative claims include the claims of a parent or parents, guardian, trustee, child, relative, attorney, or any other representative of the patient including claims for loss of services, loss of consortium, expenses, and other similar claims.” The Court found this definition creates two categories of “patient” under the Act: the first is the traditional patient who receives care by a provider; the second is a third party whose claim results from a provider’s medical malpractice to a traditional patient.

The Court noted existing Indiana Supreme Court precedent supported its interpretation of “patient” to include two categories of persons. In Cram v. Howell, the Court held that a doctor who had administered immunizations and vaccinations that had led to a patient blacking out and causing Cram’s death owed a duty of care to third persons potentially jeopardized by the care. In Cram, the Court noted it had relied upon the “implicit understanding” under the Act that such third persons are “patients.” The Court also noted in Goleski v. Fritz, the wife of a traditional patient was herself a “patient” under the Act, because she had derivative claims against her husband’s provider. Broadly applying the Act, the Court noted, provides qualified providers with protections such as the Act’s cap on damages for all claims by such patients, regardless of whoever may assert them. Finally, the Court noted that in Spangler v. Bechtel, it also embraced the broad reading of “patient” to include the parents who experienced the birth of a lifeless child and brought negligent infliction of emotional distress claims.

Although the Fund’s position conflicted with this existing Indiana Supreme Court precedent, it found a couple Court of Appeals decisions favoring its position: Midtown Community Mental Health Center v. Estate of Gahl and Preferred Professional Insurance Co. v. West. The Court, however, found these two cases unpersuasive for the reason they did not “adequately wrestle with the meaning of ‘patient’ under section 34-18-2-22.” The Court found both decisions ignored the natural reading of the Act’s broad definition of “patient.” Specifically, the Court noted:

because the two main clauses are separated by a comma and an ‘and’, this structure indicates that both clauses define ‘patient’ independently. In other words, the structure of the statute’s first sentence is as follows: ‘[“Patient”] means X and includes Y’–where X is a traditional patient and Y is a third party with a claim ‘of any kind.’ Given this structure, the best interpretation is that ‘patient’ is one who satisfies either X or Y.

Rejecting the Funds’ argument, the Court noted a patient cannot be limited to an individual who receives or should have received care and, at the same time, include people related to or representing the person (for example, a parent, child, or an attorney as set forth in the definition). The Court noted its “surplusage canon” prevents it from treating “some words as duplicative or meaningless.” The Court explicitly disapproved of the Gahl and West interpretations of a “patient” under the Act for this reason. In conclusion, the Court refused to “ignore the statute’s language in favor of what the Fund perceives to be the legislature’s intent.” Read the Court’s decision here.

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