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Justices: emotional distress actions not barred

December 13, 2011

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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