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COA rules man can challenge med mal act

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The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled a man whose wife died because of a missed medical diagnosis and obtained an $8.5 million jury verdict is entitled to an evidentiary hearing about whether the state’s statutory cap on medical malpractice awards is unconstitutional.

An 18-page ruling came Tuesday in Timothy W. Plank v. Community Hospitals of Indiana and State of Indiana, No. 49A04-1004-CT-254, reversing a lower court ruling by Marion Circuit Judge Lou Rosenberg.

The appellate decision keeps alive a case that has drawn widespread attention from the plaintiffs and defense bar, and has amicus curiae parties that include the Indiana Hospital Association and Indiana State Medical Association.

Timothy Plank sued on behalf of his wife Debra, who in November 2001 began experiencing severe abdominal pain and sought treatment at Community Hospital. Doctors failed to diagnosis a small bowel obstruction and, as a result of the missed diagnosis, she contracted sepsis and died. The husband filed a complaint with the Indiana Department of Insurance against the hospital and three physicians, but prior to trial the three doctors were dismissed. The case went to trial against only Community Hospital. A jury ruled in Plank’s favor in September 2009 and awarded $8.5 million in damages, and the hospital moved to reduce the amount to the statutory limit of $1.25 million pursuant to the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act.

Plank objected one week after trial and requested an evidentiary hearing to pursue his constitutional challenge to Indiana Code 34-18-14-3. Judge Rosenberg denied the request for a hearing, relying on a 1980 decision from the Supreme Court upholding the med mal cap.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did not decide on the constitutionality of the act or Plank’s claims. Instead, the three-judge appellate panel determined Plank should be able to present his case at an evidentiary hearing. Plank’s attorney, John Muller with Montross Miller Muller Mendelson & Kennedy, argued that circumstances have changed since the cap was implemented and it is no longer constitutional, while the hospital and state contend the cap can’t be reconsidered because the justices previously upheld its constitutionality.

Judges Edward Najam and Patricia Riley in the majority relied on three cases decided by the Indiana Supreme Court in the past three decades to support their conclusions.

“In sum, our Supreme Court has declared both that a determination of constitutionality under Section 23 (of Article I of the Indiana Constitution) can be revisited and that the challenging party has the burden to prove that changes in circumstances require reversal of existing caselaw,” the opinion says.

The majority rejected the state’s categorical assertion that the Legislature, not the courts, must amend or repeal the statute in order for that cap to change. The opinion points out that lawmakers receive substantial deference but the courts are also responsible for determining the constitutionality of law.

“We hold that Plank is entitled to an evidentiary hearing so that he can attempt to sustain his burden to prove that the statutory cap on medical malpractice awards under the Act is unconstitutional,” Najam wrote. “Without a hearing, Plank has no means to satisfy his burden of proof. We need not address the merits of Plank’s constitutional challenge, which are not before us in this appeal.”

The court also determined Community Hospital didn’t demonstrate that the trial court abused its discretion when it instructed the jury about the damages, and so the hospital isn’t entitled to a new trial.

Judge John Baker agreed with his colleagues generally on the issue of the evidentiary hearing, but believed in this case Plank waived his right to challenge the statutory cap because he didn’t object at trial or before the verdict was issued. As a result, Plank shouldn’t be allowed to advance those arguments at a subsequent hearing, he wrote.

The case now goes back to Marion Circuit Court, where Rosenberg is instructed to hold the evidentiary hearing and listen to Plank’s constitutional challenges to the medical malpractice act, whether facial or as applied. That may also lead to a trial court judgment on what analysis or factors should be used in exploring the constitutionality.

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  • If Courts don't legislate, the Legislature won't decide court cases
    The Title says it all! If the Constitution hasn't changed since 1980 and the Legislature has met every year since 1980, it would be Court legislation to change the statutory cap for med mal.

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  1. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  2. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

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  4. Duncan, It's called the RIGHT OF ASSOCIATION and in the old days people believed it did apply to contracts and employment. Then along came title vii.....that aside, I believe that I am free to work or not work for whomever I like regardless: I don't need a law to tell me I'm free. The day I really am compelled to ignore all the facts of social reality in my associations and I blithely go along with it, I'll be a slave of the state. That day is not today......... in the meantime this proposed bill would probably be violative of 18 usc sec 1981 that prohibits discrimination in contracts... a law violated regularly because who could ever really expect to enforce it along the millions of contracts made in the marketplace daily? Some of these so-called civil rights laws are unenforceable and unjust Utopian Social Engineering. Forcing people to love each other will never work.

  5. I am the father of a sweet little one-year-old named girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. To anyone who reads this who may be considering the decision to terminate, please know that your child will absolutely light up your life as my daughter has the lives of everyone around her. There is no part of me that condones abortion of a child on the basis that he/she has or might have Down Syndrome. From an intellectual standpoint, however, I question the enforceability of this potential law. As it stands now, the bill reads in relevant part as follows: "A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion . . . if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or a potential diagnosis of Down syndrome." It includes similarly worded provisions abortion on "any other disability" or based on sex selection. It goes so far as to make the medical provider at least potentially liable for wrongful death. First, how does a medical provider "know" that "the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion SOLELY" because of anything? What if the woman says she just doesn't want the baby - not because of the diagnosis - she just doesn't want him/her? Further, how can the doctor be liable for wrongful death, when a Child Wrongful Death claim belongs to the parents? Is there any circumstance in which the mother's comparative fault will not exceed the doctor's alleged comparative fault, thereby barring the claim? If the State wants to discourage women from aborting their children because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I'm all for that. Purporting to ban it with an unenforceable law, however, is not the way to effectuate this policy.

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