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Mother of stillborn fetus satisfies actual victim requirement in Med-Mal Act

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The Indiana Court of Appeals held today that a mother who suffers a stillbirth due to medical malpractice qualifies as an injured patient and satisfies the actual victim requirement under the Medical Malpractice Act, regardless of whether the malpractice resulted in injuries to the mother, fetus, or both.

In Steven Spangler and Heidi Brown v. Barbara Bechtel, et al., No. 49A05-0908-CV-482, unmarried parents Steven Spangler and Heidi Brown appealed summary judgment in favor of St. Vincent Randolph Hospital, nurse-midwife Barbara Bechtel, and Expectations Women’s Health and Childbearing Center for wrongful death and emotional distress. Their baby was stillborn and could not be resuscitated.

The appellate court found the parents have a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress based upon Brown’s direct involvement in the stillbirth. Indiana courts have held on numerous occasions that when a malpractice claim is brought based upon malpractice affecting a pregnancy, the mother satisfies Shuamber’s modified impact rule, 579 N.E.2d 452, 454 (Ind. 1991). The hospital failed to cite a case in which an Indiana court precluded parents of a fetus suffering death as a result of medical malpractice from asserting a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, noted Judge Elaine Brown.

The judges also ruled the parents can assert their claim under the Medical Malpractice Act. In previous cases allowing for recovery of emotional damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress stemming from miscarriages or stillbirths, the mothers were physically injured as a result of malpractice.

Previous caselaw hadn’t addressed whether Brown would qualify as an “actual victim” of negligence able to assert the parents’ claim for emotional distress because she wasn’t physically injured by the malpractice. The appellate court was persuaded by the parents’ argument that if an unborn child isn’t a separate person under law, then the unborn child must be a part of the mother, physically and legally. Other jurisdictions with similarly constructed laws have reached this conclusion, wrote Judge Brown.

“We do not believe that the legislature intended such sweeping legal implications as to preclude medical malpractice liability on the one hand and allow it on the other based upon whether a full-term, viable fetus actually survives the pregnancy, even if for a day or two only,” she wrote.

The appellate court reversed summary judgment in favor of the hospital and midwife and remanded for further proceedings.
 

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