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Immunity extends to underlying diagnoses

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In a matter of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that a hospital's statutory immunity for reporting suspected child abuse to authorities extends to its underlying diagnosis.

In Anonymous Hospital v. A.K., et al., No. 45A03-0901-CV-2, on interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals today reversed the trial court's denial of the hospital's petition for preliminary determination of law and motion for summary judgment on a family's medical malpractice claim. The parents of infant daughter S.K. filed the claim after lab analysis of a urine sample of S.K. showed sperm present in her urine. The parents brought S.K. to the hospital due to an unexplained fever. Based on two samples that showed sperm, hospital personnel contacted the local child protection services and police.

S.K. was admitted and a third sample taken the next day did not contain any sperm. CPS investigated the situation and allowed her to be discharged. S.K.'s 12-year-old stepbrother was questioned and counseled because he admitted he had masturbated, not cleaned himself, and then held his sister while she was naked. As such, the lab results were accurate, but there was no abuse found.

The parents argued the hospital committed the malpractice by negligently testing the urine samples and reporting the results to authorities before confirming the accuracy of the results. They claimed reporting an allegation of child abuse without being sure would rebut the presumption of good faith.

The appellate judges disagreed, believing the immediate reporting suggested the hospital had a good faith belief S.K. was in immediate danger, wrote Senior Judge Betty Barteau.

The parents also argued the hospital's immunity should be limited to the report of suspected abuse and shouldn't extend to the underlying diagnosis. Turning to other jurisdictions' rulings on this matter, the appellate court concluded Indiana Code Section 31-33-6-1 provides immunity for any individual making a report, as well as anyone participating in any actions that cause the report to be made.

"The phrase 'causes to be made' in the statute necessarily includes the examination, testing and diagnosis of the child by health care providers," the judge wrote.

The purpose of the child abuse reporting statute is to encourage effective reporting of suspected abuse or neglect, provide prompt investigations, and protect children. The legislature's stated goals are better met when individuals attempting to comply with the reporting statute can do so without the fear of civil liability, Judge Barteau continued. If not, it would have a chilling effect on the reporting of child abuse.

"Health care providers would be placed in a 'Catch 22' - report the suspected abuse and be subject to civil liability, or fail to report the suspected abuse and be subject to criminal liability. This illogical result cannot be what our legislature intended," she wrote.

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