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Justices rule on Journey’s Account Statute

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The Indiana Supreme Court believes general negligence claims filed with the Indiana Department of Insurance can continue an action already filed in state court relating to medical malpractice issues.

A unanimous decision came today in Suzanne Eads and James Atterholt v. Community Hospital, No. 45S03-1001-CV-33, reversing a ruling by Lake Circuit Judge Lorenzo Arredondo that was affirmed last year by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

In a split decision in July 2009, the appellate court had determined the state’s Journey's Account Statute did not apply to a woman's medical malpractice claim filed after the two-year statute of limitations expired. The two-judge majority affirmed summary judgment in favor of the hospital in Suzanne Eads' medical malpractice claim. Eads' leg was put in a cast and her request for a wheelchair was denied so she left the hospital on crutches. She fell in a foyer area and injured her back and left hand.

She originally filed a negligence complaint against the hospital nearly two years after the fall. In 2007, the hospital argued the suit should be dismissed because it was a medical malpractice claim that had to be filed before the Indiana Department of Insurance. Eads then filed the proposed medical malpractice claim with the IDOI, relying on the same facts as the negligence case.

While the trial and appellate court ruled against Eads, the justices found in her favor.

“We agree that a medical malpractice claim is in some respects, as the Court of Appeals put it, ‘wholly different’ from a general negligence claim,” Justice Theodore Boehm wrote. “But we do not agree that the differences between the two are the ‘source of the liability.’ The MMA does not create a new cause of action. It merely requires that claims for medical malpractice that are recognized under tort law and applicable statutes be pursued through the procedures of the MMA.”

Noting that the law requires those claims be brought no later than three years after the termination of the first action or the statute of limitations, the JAS applies here and has a different limitation period, Justice Boehm wrote.

The justices also discounted one of the hospital’s arguments, which was that this JAS requirement wasn’t met because the hospital didn’t have notice of the financial exposure presented by the claim.

“The Hospital says it establishes reserves for claims sounding in general negligence differently than it establishes reserves for those sounding in medical malpractice,” he wrote. “This may be true, but the MMA itself generally prohibits a request for specific damage awards in the proposed IDOI complaint. I.C. § 34-18-8-3. To the extent there is a difference in reserves due to the caps on medical malpractice recovery or other procedural differences in medical malpractice cases, these are matters of law that the Hospital is equipped to evaluate for itself.”
 

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