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Judges: no private cause allowed for not reporting abuse, neglect

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Standing behind a decision made by appellate judges about 20 years ago, the Indiana Court of Appeals has again declined to interpret state statute in a way that allows for a private right of action for failing to report child abuse or neglect.

The unanimous decision comes today in C.T. v. Sherri Gammon and Dr. Ronald Beahm, M.D., 48A04-0911-CV-624, a Madison Circuit case involving a father who sued his minor son’s pediatrician for not reporting that the mother was smoking in the child’s presence to the point of constituting abuse or neglect. At issue in the case is the child referred to as T.T., born prematurely in December 1997 and cared for by Dr. Ronald Beahm from 1998 to 2006.

The parents never married and at some point separated. Father C.T. filed two reports with the IDCS because of mother’s subjecting the child to second-hand smoke. The state agency determined both reports were unsubstantiated, but in the meantime C.T. filed a suit in county court and obtained an order prohibiting her from smoking in the child’s presence. C.T. later received physical custody and filed a pro se negligence complaint against Beahm, seeking punitive damages. C.T. also filed a malpractice complaint in the state’s insurance agency, but a special judge later entered summary judgment in favor of the doctor on the grounds that he didn’t have a duty to protect the child from alleged exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals decided that this is a medical malpractice matter and not ordinary negligence, but that state statute allows a judge to preliminarily determine an issue of law before a medical review panel issues a decision.

While Indiana Code Article 31-33 encourages individuals to report suspected or known abuse or neglect by making a verbal report, the appellate panel determined that it doesn’t require one to do so and a person who doesn’t file one of those reports can’t be punished with a civil action.

The same issue came up in Borne ex. Rel. Borne v. Northwest Allen County School Corp., 532 N.E. 2d 1996 (Ind. Ct. App. 1989), trans. denied, and the three-judge panel at that time held that the legislature didn’t intend to confer a private right of action for any breach of the duty to report imposed by the statutes. The same rationale applies here, today’s panel wrote.

“However, like the majority of state legislatures, our legislature has declined to codify a civil cause of action against an adult who knowingly fails to report alleged child abuse… Absent codification, we are not convinced that extending a civil remedy to a victim of abuse or neglect against all persons who know of child abuse and fail to report child abuse is good public policy,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote. “Rather, we agree with the [Borne] majority. Thus, our reporting statutes do not create a civil cause of action for failure to report child abuse or neglect. The vast majority of states have reached the same conclusion under their reporting statutes.”

The decision affirms the summary judgment ruling in the doctor’s favor, and remands the case for consideration of damages and attorney fees relating to the pro se father’s trial court filings. But the appellate judges declined to award attorney fees and costs to the doctor’s lawyers relating to the appeal.


 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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