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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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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

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