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Indiana has a rather complex and parsimonious medical malpractice statute which sometimes leads to claimants seeking creative solutions to some of the obstacles they face in pursuing justice for claims with merit.  Garau Germano, P.C. v. Robertson, 2019 WL 3886461, involved just such a creative approach.  In Garau Germano, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a complaint for declaratory judgment and mandate filed on behalf of a law firm and one of its clients against the Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund (PCF) and related parties.  The law firm and client sought to prevent the defendants from requiring a medical malpractice claimant’s periodic payments agreement with a qualified health care provider to pay out the provider’s maximum liability under the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act (MMA) before the claimant could access the PCF. For context, the MMA provides that healthcare providers can discharge their liability to claimants by making an immediate payment of their maximum liability under the MMA, or by making an immediate payment and paying the cost of a periodic payments agreement. Ind. Code § 34-18-14-4. The plaintiffs in this case argued that the MMA does not require that a healthcare provider’s immediate payment plus the money paid out under a periodic payments agreement equal the provider’s maximum liability before a claimant can access the PCF.

The MMA provides that healthcare providers are not liable for an amount in excess of $250,000.00 for an act of malpractice that occurs after June 30, 1999 and before July 1, 2017, $400,000.00 for an act of malpractice that occurs after June 30, 2017 and before July 1, 2019, and $500,000.00 for an act of malpractice that occurs after June 30, 2019. Ind. Code § 34-18-14-3. However, if a healthcare provider’s immediate payment of money plus its expenditure for a periodic payments agreement exceeds $187,000.00 for an act of act of malpractice that occurs after June 30, 1999 and before July 1, 2017 or seventy-five percent (75%) of its maximum liability for an act of malpractice after June 30, 2017, the healthcare provider will be considered to have paid its maximum liability. Ind. Code §§ 34-18-14-4, 34-18-15-3. If a healthcare provider has agreed to settle its liability by payment of its maximum liability, either by an immediate payment or by making an immediate payment and paying for a periodic payments agreement to pay out money in the future, a claimant can thereafter file a petition to seek excess damages from the PCF. Ind. Code § 34-18-15-3.

The question raised by the plaintiffs was whether the present payment of money by a healthcare provider plus the future payments under a periodic payments agreement must equal a healthcare provider’s maximum liability. For an act of medical malpractice that occurred after June 30, 1999 and before July 1, 2017, could a claimant access the PCF if a healthcare provider makes an immediate payment of $150,000.00 and pays $37,001.00 for a periodic payments agreement that only pays out $50,000.00 in the future (a total of $200,000.00 in payments), as opposed to paying out $100,00.00 (a total of $250,000.00 in payments)? The answer to this question is important as it relates to elderly claimants, for instance, as any future payments under a periodic payments agreement may not pay out during their lifetime.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion on whether a trial court properly instructed a jury in a rear-end automobile accident case in Indiana. In Torrence v. Gamble, 124 N.E.3d 1249, 1250 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019), the defendant rear-ended the plaintiff as the plaintiff was stopped waiting for oncoming traffic to clear before making a left-handed turn. After the collision, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant for the substantial damage to her vehicle and for personal injuries she suffered in the collision. The defendant denied liability and asserted the plaintiff had comparative fault in causing the collision, namely, that the plaintiff’s brake lights were not illuminated, and her left turn signal was off.

Under Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act, which follows a modified comparative fault approach, a personal injury claimant is barred from recovery if the claimant’s fault is greater than the fault of all persons whose fault proximately contributed to the claimant’s damages. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-6. In other words, if the fault of the claimant is greater than fifty percent (50%) of the total fault of all persons involved in the incident giving rise to the injury or death, the jury has to return a verdict in favor of the defendant or defendants. Ind. Code §§ 34-51-2-7, 34-51-2-8. If the plaintiff’s fault is not greater than fifty percent (50%) of the total fault of all persons involved in the incident giving rise to the injury or death, the jury has to return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Id.

Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act provides that a court shall instruct a jury to determine its verdict taking into account the percentage of fault of the claimant/plaintiff, of the defendant/defendants, and of any person who is a nonparty. Id. The Act further provides that the trial court shall provide the jury with forms of verdicts that require only the disclosure of the percentage of fault of each party and nonparty and the amount of the verdict against each defendant. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-11.

The Indiana Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in a car accident case in which the question before the Court was whether a party may use evidence of an expert witness’s professional disciplinary history to challenge the expert’s credibility. In Tunstall v. Manning, 124 N.E.3d 1193, 1195 (Ind. 2019), the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against a defendant driver that had rear-ended the plaintiff at a stop sign, causing injuries to the plaintiff. One of the plaintiff’s treating physicians diagnosed the plaintiff with a 28% whole body impairment.

Leading up to the jury trial, counsel for the defendant inquired about the plaintiff’s physician’s past professional discipline and the reasons underlying the physician’s past discipline. While the physician admitted his medical license had previously been on probation, he refused to answer questions about the reasons underlying his past discipline. When the defendant filed a motion in court to compel the plaintiff’s physician to answer questions about his past discipline, the trial court denied the motion, reasoning that the physician’s professional disciplinary history was not relevant because his medical license was in good standing. At trial, the defendant was unable to use the physician’s licensure probation and the reasons underlying the physician’s past discipline to impeach the physician’s testimony, which was the sole medical testimony offered by the plaintiff, based upon the trial court excluding any evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s past licensure probation and the reasons for his past professional discipline.

After an Indiana jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion by disallowing evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s licensure probation and the reasons underlying his professional discipline. In personal injury cases in which there are competing expert opinions as to the seriousness of a person’s injuries, expert testimony can be particularly important in affecting the amount of any jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Once the foundation for an expert’s opinions has been established, the accuracy, consistency, and credibility of the expert’s opinions can be challenged by the parties. The question in this case was whether the plaintiff’s physician’s expert opinions could be attacked by evidence of his professional disciplinary history.

We previously wrote about a split between two panels of the Indiana Court of Appeals on what constitutes preferred venue under Indiana Trial Rule 75 in medical malpractice cases in Indiana. Indiana Trial Rule 75 provides for preferred venue in “the county where… the principal office of a defendant organization is located…,” and the Indiana Supreme Court has previously interpreted the term “principal office” as “the place in Indiana where one serves the corporate registered agent.” Ind. R. Trial P. 75(A)(4); Am. Family Ins. Co. v. Ford Motor Co., 857 N.E.2d 971, 975 (Ind. 2006) (American Family).

Plaintiffs in both medical malpractice cases argued preferred venue existed in Marion County, Indiana because one or more of the defendants had registered agents with office addresses in Marion County. However, the healthcare Defendants in these cases argued that preferred venue did not lie in Marion County because a new Indiana statute provides that “[t]he address of [an entity’s registered] agent does not determine venue in an action or a proceeding involving the entity.” Ind. Code § 23-0.5-4-12.

The Indiana Court of Appeals in Morrison v. Vasquez, 107 N.E.3d 1103 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018) held that Marion County, Indiana was not a preferred venue based upon the address of the defendant’s registered agent, whereas the Court in Indiana Univ. Health S. Indiana Physicians, Inc. v. Noel, 114 N.E.3d 479 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018) held that preferred venue lied in Marion County.

The Indiana Supreme Court recently held in Brewer v. PACCAR, Inc. that a component part manufacturer (PACCAR) may have a duty to offer or install necessary safety features under Indiana’s Product Liability Act (IPLA). Because issues of fact existed as to whether the safety features were offered and necessary to make the final product safe, the Court reversed the trial court’s finding that PACCAR owed no duty, as a matter of law, to install safety features that the injury party alleged were necessary.

The IPLA subjects a manufacturer of “a product or a component part of a product,” I.C. § 34-6-2-77, to liability for physical harm caused by a manufacturer placing “into the stream of commerce any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to any user or consumer,” I.C. § 34-20-2-1. A product is defective under the IPLA if it is defectively designed, if it has a manufacturing flaw, or if it lacks adequate warnings about dangers associated with its use.

Rickey Brewer was a construction foreman killed when a semi driver backed up a semi with an integrated PACCAR glider kit, did not see Rickey, and pinned him against a trailer, killing him.  His widow and his estate asserted an IPLA claim against PACCAR. The claim asserted PACCAR’s glider kit was defectively designed because it lacked certain safety features to reduce the danger inherent in its forty-foot blind spot. (If you drive a vehicle with a rear camera and sensors, you can probably attest to the peace of mind and safety such devices add to our everyday life). Here, because a design-defect claim is based in negligence, Brewer would need to be able to prove at trial that (1) PACCAR owed a duty to Rickey; (2) PACCAR breached that duty; and (3) the breach proximately caused an injury to Rickey. The only element at issue in the case was duty—whether PACCAR lacked a duty, as a matter of law, to install certain safety features.

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages are a creature of common law and have been allowed for under certain circumstances by Indiana’s legislature under Indiana law. Cheatham v. Pohle, 789 N.E.2d 467, 471 (Ind. 2003); Ind. Code §§ 34-51-3-0.2 to 34-51-3-6. While the purpose of compensatory damages is to make a plaintiff whole and otherwise value a plaintiff’s injury, punitive damages serve to deter and punish wrongful activity and behavior. Cheatham, 789 N.E.2d at 471.

What is the standard for obtaining an award of punitive damages in Indiana?

Not all claims against healthcare providers in Indiana constitute medical malpractice and fall within the scope of the Medical Malpractice Act. A slip-and-fall on untreated ice in a parking lot at a hospital, for instance, is a claim of ordinary negligence, as opposed to medical malpractice. The Medical Malpractice Act does not apply to claims of ordinary negligence.

Whether a claim constitutes medical malpractice or ordinary negligence is a question of law and often turns on hairline distinctions with courts looking to the substance of a claim. The test is whether the claim is based on the provider’s behavior or practices while acting in a professional capacity as a provider of medical services. The Medical Malpractice Act applies to curative or salutary conduct undertaken for the benefit of a patient’s health. The Medical Malpractice Act does not apply to conduct unrelated to the promotion of a patient’s health or the provider’s exercise of professional expertise, skill, or judgment. Courts also ask whether the issues are capable of resolution by a jury without application of the standard of care and whether there is a causal connection between the conduct complained of and the patient-healthcare provider relationship.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently held that the Medical Malpractice Act was not applicable to a claim of negligent dissemination of protected health information.

The Indiana Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in Horejs v. Milford, 117 N.E.3d 559 (Ind. 2019), a medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit in Indiana concerning the availability of “survivor damages” for wrongful death, including loss of love, care, and companionship. In Horejs, the surviving widower, the statutory beneficiary under Indiana’s wrongful death statute, died during the pendency of the case without an heir. The Court previously held in Bemenderfer v. Williams, 745 N.E.2d 212 (Ind. 2001) that “the wrongful death statute does not operate to preclude the statutory beneficiary who dies before judgment from recovering wrongful death damages.” Id. at 214. However, while Bemenderfer held wrongful death damages did not abate upon the death of the surviving widow under Indiana’s survival statute, which allows claims to proceed after the death of a claimant, unlike Horejs, there was an heir to recover those damages in Bemenderfer.

After the patient in Horejs died as a result of alleged medical malpractice, her surviving husband was appointed administrator of her estate and he filed a lawsuit against the medical providers for wrongful death damages, which include “survivor damages” such as loss of love, care and companionship and “final-expense damages” such as medical, funeral and burial expenses. While the lawsuit was pending, the surviving husband died intestate (without a will), leaving no heir. Thereafter, the deceased patient’s father and brothers were appointed co-administrators of the patient’s estate.

Indiana’s wrongful death statute provides that the personal representative of the decedent may maintain an action against the alleged wrongdoer if the decedent could have maintained an action had he or she lived. Wrongful death damages recovered for reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses inure to the exclusive benefit of the decedent’s estate for payment thereof, and the remainder of damages, if any, such as loss of love, care and companionship, inure to the exclusive benefit of the widow or widower, dependent children, and dependent next of kin.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in a personal injury lawsuit between a landowner and a person injured on the landowner’s property after a ram owned by the landowner headbutted the person, causing her to fall and fracture her arm, which required surgery.

In deciding the case, the Court of Appeals reviewed Indiana premises liability law, Indiana law on injuries caused by domestic animals, Indiana negligent entrustment law, Indiana negligent supervision law, and Indiana vicarious liability law.

The landlord in this case was in Florida and left her home in Indiana, including animals on her property, under the care of her half-brother. The landowner’s half-brother invited the plaintiff onto the property to help care for an ill goat. While attempting to help the goat, the plaintiff was injured. The plaintiff sought to hold the landowner liable for her injuries on the basis of premises liability, negligent entrustment, negligent supervision, and vicarious liability. Both parties moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the landowner.

Yes, according to the Indiana Supreme Court decision in Myers v. Crouse-Hinds Div. of Cooper Indus., Inc., 53 N.E.3d 1160 (Ind. 2016). In this case, the Court consolidated three appeals involving the constitutionality of the Indiana Product Liability Act statute of repose as applied to plaintiffs who had suffered mesothelioma-related illnesses and in one case death.

What is mesothelioma? Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that often develops years after exposure to asbestos, which is a naturally occurring mineral used in a variety of products manufactured for various industries and still found in many old buildings where it has not been removed through abatement. Mesothelioma can take different forms in tissues lining certain of the body’s organs or cavities including pleural mesothelioma (mesothelioma occurring in the pleura aka lining of the lung), peritoneal mesothelioma (mesothelioma occurring in the peritoneum aka lining of the abdominal cavity), and pericardial (mesothelioma occurring in the pericardium aka lining of the heart).

Turning to the decision in Myers, the Court examined Indiana’s Product Liability Act as applied to cases of the mesothelioma-inflicted plaintiffs. Chapter 3 of the Indiana Product Liability Act sets forth the statute of limitations for product liability actions in Indiana. Section 1 of Chapter 3 applies to product liability actions generally and includes a two-year statute of limitations and a ten-year statute of repose. Section 2 of Chapter 3 applies to asbestos-related actions and also includes a two-year statute of limitations. However, Section 2, unlike Section 1, does not include a ten-year statute of repose.

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