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Justices: emotional distress actions not barred

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The Indiana Supreme Court held Tuesday that separate actions by parents seeking damages for emotional distress from experiencing the stillbirth of their child are not barred by the Indiana Child Wrongful Death Act or the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act. As such, the court reversed summary judgment for a nurse-midwife, her alleged employer and the hospital.

In Steven Spangler and Heidi Brown v. Barbara Bechtel, Expectations Women's Health and Childbearing Center, and St. Vincent Randolph Hospital, No. 49S05-1012-CV-703, parents Steven Spangler and Heidi Brown filed three counts against the defendants after their child died in utero prior to delivery. Nurse-midwife Barbara Bechtel and Expectations Women’s Health and Childbearing Center argued that the claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress are governed by the Indiana Child Wrongful Death Act, under which a claim for the wrongful death of an unborn child wasn’t cognizable at the time of the death of the parent’s child in this case. The trial court concluded that the baby wasn’t a “child” for purposes of the CWDA.

The justices rejected the defendants’ argument that Ind. Patient’s Comp. Fund v. Patrick, 929 N.E.2d 190 (Ind. 2010), supports their claim and held that Patrick doesn’t preclude the possibility of a separate claim, outside the wrongful death statutes, for negligent infliction of emotional distress by a parent suffering a miscarriage or full-term stillbirth.  

“The only arguable support for the trial court's finding a lack of negligently-inflicted injury that we can perceive is that … the injuries to the plaintiffs' child were not actionable either at common law or under the Child Wrongful Death Statute in effect at the time of the death. Yet, this does not alter the undeniable fact that the death of an unborn child is an injury to the child. It simply means the injury is not one for which the unborn-child-victim can seek recovery; such an injury, however, is enough to support a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress,” wrote Justice Brent Dickson for the unanimous court.

As long as the plaintiffs can satisfy the other requirements of the bystander rule, they may proceed with their actions seeking emotional distress damages, he continued.

With regards to the hospital, the high court found that claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress, if arising from alleged medical malpractice, are subject to the Medical Malpractice Act not because they are derivative, but because they are “otherwise” a result of alleged malpractice. They did not read Ind. Patient’s Comp. Fund. v. Winkle, 863 N.E.2d 1 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007), to preclude the plaintiff’s MMA actions for negligent infliction of emotional distress from the stillbirth of their child as the hospital had argued.  

“Thus a parent who suffers emotional distress from experiencing the birth of a lifeless child resulting from medical negligence is a ‘patient’ subject to the MMA, but such claims need not be seen as ‘derivative’ ones. Without the ‘derivative’ claim rationale, it was unnecessary for the Winkle court to opine that the CWDA's treatment of unborn children should be imported into the MMA. The scope of ‘patient’ under the MMA does not turn on whether the CWDA extends to unborn children,” wrote Dickson.

The high court remanded for further proceedings.

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  1. A sad end to a prolific gadfly. Indiana has suffered a great loss in the journalistic realm.

  2. Good riddance to this dangerous activist judge

  3. What is the one thing the Hoosier legal status quo hates more than a whistleblower? A lawyer whistleblower taking on the system man to man. That must never be rewarded, must always, always, always be punished, lest the whole rotten tree be felled.

  4. I want to post this to keep this tread alive and hope more of David's former clients might come forward. In my case, this coward of a man represented me from June 2014 for a couple of months before I fired him. I knew something was wrong when he blatantly lied about what he had advised me in my contentious and unfortunate divorce trial. His impact on the proceedings cast a very long shadow and continues to impact me after a lengthy 19 month divorce. I would join a class action suit.

  5. The dispute in LB Indiana regarding lake front property rights is typical of most beach communities along our Great Lakes. Simply put, communication to non owners when visiting the lakefront would be beneficial. The Great Lakes are designated navigational waters (including shorelines). The high-water mark signifies the area one is able to navigate. This means you can walk, run, skip, etc. along the shores. You can't however loiter, camp, sunbath in front of someones property. Informational signs may be helpful to owners and visitors. Our Great Lakes are a treasure that should be enjoyed by all. PS We should all be concerned that the Long Beach, Indiana community is on septic systems.

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