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Justices rule anti-SLAPP law no defense to malpractice claim

May 10, 2018

A medical malpractice suit filed against a doctor who reported his suspicions of child abuse to the Department of Child Services will proceed after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state’s anti-SLAPP laws do not apply to this case.

Justices reversed a Marion Superior Court’s dismissal of the case under state laws against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Indiana’s high court found the anti-SLAPP laws enacted in 1998 as a shield against lawsuits targeting speech protected under the First Amendment provide no defense to Dr. Cortney Demetris in this case.

Demetris was the attending physician when Stacey and Derek VanWinkle’s daughter A.V. was admitted for observation. Demetris concluded A.V. suffered from medical child abuse — formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy — in which a child receives unnecessary and potentially risky treatment due to false reporting by a parent or caregiver.

Demetris reported his suspicions to the Department of Child Services, which removed the VanWinkles’ children from their home and substantiated allegations of abuse, which were later reversed by the trial court. The VanWinkles then filed a malpractice claim against Demetris, which was dismissed by the trial court — a decision that was reversed by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the COA’s ruling on this issue of first impression in Paul Gresk, Trustee for the Bankruptcy Estate of Derek VanWinkle and Stacey VanWinkle on behalf of M.V. and A.V. their minor children v. Cortney Demetris, M.D., et al. 49S02-1711-MI-686.

“Indiana’s anti-SLAPP statute was adopted in response to the discrete problem of retaliatory lawsuits aimed at chilling constitutional rights” such as free speech, Justice Mark Massa wrote. “The VanWinkles’ lawsuit ‘is not the type of lawsuit that the anti-SLAPP statute was enacted to prevent’ because it was not filed to stifle Dr. Demetris’s ‘speech on a public issue or an issue of public interest,’ but to recover damages for alleged medical malpractice. … Thus, we reverse, and remand for consideration of the stayed issues.”

The court expressed no opinion on the outcome of stayed issues in this litigation, but the opinion narrows the potential scope of anti-SLAPP litigation. All justices concurred in the opinion except Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, who did not participate.

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