The Court of Appeals of Indiana has upheld a nearly $300,000 judgment in favor of a mother who sued her ex-husband and his new girlfriend for making a false claim of child abuse against her.
After parents Charles Ramey and Ashley Ping divorced, Ping received sole legal and physical custody of their minor child while Ramey exercised parenting time. Soon after the divorce, Ramey began dating Jordan McHenry.
Following one of Ramey’s parenting time sessions in August 2017, Ping noticed a blister on the child’s genitals, notified the Indiana Department of Child Services and sought medical treatment for the child. Roughly a week later, Ramey and McHenry observed a similar blister on the child, which they claimed was new.
McHenry reported the blister to the child abuse and neglect hotline, and DCS subsequently removed the child from Ping’s care on an emergency basis and placed him with Ramey.
DCS then filed a petition alleging the child was a child in need of services based on Ping’s alleged neglect, but the Johnson Superior Court denied the DCS petition and ordered that the child be returned to his mother’s care after being separated for more than one month.
Shortly thereafter, Ramey was granted his request to obtain sole legal and primary physical custody of his son. But the COA reversed the lower court’s decision last August and remanded “for reconsideration of the evidence based on the entirety of the circumstances concerning these parties.”
On remand, the trial court again ruled for Ramey, and the COA affirmed.
The Indiana Supreme Court later denied transfer to the child custody case, drawing a dissent from Justice Steven David, who expressed concern about the “increasing number of appellate opinions that explicitly circumvent Appellate Rule 65(E).”
Meanwhile, Ping sued DCS and two family case managers in federal court, alleging her constitutional rights were violated.
The federal matter was settled out of court, with Ping receiving a $988,000 settlement. In exchange, she signed a release agreeing to forgo her right to a trial on the issues raised in her complaint.
But Ping did file suit back in state court, this time alleging Ramey and McHenry had made a false report of child abuse in violation of Indiana Code § 31-33-22-3.
The trial court denied Ramey and McHenry’s assertion that Ping’s complaint was barred under the doctrine of res judicata and the prohibition against double recoveries. It also rejected their first motion for judgment on the evidence at the end of trial, in which Ramey and McHenry alleged the release agreement Ping had signed to settle the federal complaint precluded her from bringing the instant lawsuit.
A jury then ruled in favor of Ping, awarding her $275,000 in damages, with Ramey and McHenry each to pay $90,750. It also found Ramey and McHenry were each liable to Ping for $10,000 in punitive damages.
Ramey and McHenry filed a joint motion for judgment on the evidence and motion to correct error, which was denied. The Court of Appeals then affirmed in a Monday decision.
In affirming, the COA determined the trial court did not err when it interpreted the false reporting statute. There was also no error in its instruction of the jury, the COA held, concluding that any false report of child abuse, whether direct or indirect, can subject a person to liability.
“Further, although Ramey did not text or call DCS, there is ample evidence that he and McHenry acted together to make the false report and, as such, Ramey communicated a report to DCS indirectly,” Judge Edward Najam wrote.
Additionally, the COA determined that Ping presented sufficient evidence to rebut the statutory presumptions of good faith and qualified immunity, and that a reasonable jury could conclude Ramey and McHenry had acted with gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.
“… (W)hile Ramey and McHenry denied knowledge of the blister prior to August 27, the evidence demonstrates that Child had the blister prior to August 27 and that Ramey and McHenry knew about it as early as August 22 but nonetheless reported it as a new injury,” Najam wrote.
The appellate panel also found sufficient evidence to support the award of punitive damages.
Finally, it concluded Ping was not precluded from bringing the instant lawsuit under either the principle of res judicata or the terms of the DCS release agreement.
The case is Charles T. Ramey, III and Jordan McHenry v. Ashley D. Ping, 21A-CT-2103.