Despite guilty plea in criminal case, COA allows defendant’s civil case against treatment providers to continue

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A man with serious mental health issues who killed his grandfather soon after receiving mental health treatment has secured a reversal from the Court of Appeals of Indiana, which concluded his treatment providers were wrongly granted summary judgment on his medical malpractice claim.

On several occasions between December 2016 and early January 2017, Zachary Miller arrived at Community Howard Regional Health’s emergency room and requested admission for his mental illness and dangerous propensities. Each time, he was treated and discharged.

After one such treatment, on Jan. 9, 2017, Miller killed his grandfather, John. He subsequently pleaded guilty but mentally ill to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with 12 years executed.

Meanwhile, Miller filed a proposed complaint for damages with the Indiana Department of Insurance, alleging the treatment providers had committed medical malpractice in their treatment of him, which resulted in him suffering mental trauma, emotional distress and loss of his freedom.

A medical review panel found that the providers failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care and that the failure was ultimately a factor in the resulting alleged damages. Miller then filed a complaint for damages against the providers in the Howard Superior Court, but it granted summary judgment for the providers.

In reversing that decision Tuesday, the Court of Appeals concluded Miller’s case presented the same problem found in Rimert v. Mortell, 680 N.E.2d 867 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), trans. denied — a lack of clarity as to whether Miller was legally responsible for his criminal act of murder.

“Although Miller entered a plea of guilty but mentally ill to his criminal charge, in this civil action he claims that he was insane at the time of the killing,” Senior Judge John Baker wrote Tuesday in Zachary Miller v. Laxeshkumar Patel, M.D., et al., 21A-CT-2500. “The rationale behind this claim is that an insane person is not held criminally responsible for his acts.”

The COA noted that while Miller’s felony conviction may be admitted into evidence in the civil action, “it is not necessarily conclusive proof therein of the facts upon which his conviction was based.”

The appellate court ultimately concluded that public policy should not preclude Miller from attempting to rebut the facts as established by his criminal conviction and prove that he was criminally insane at the time of the killing and, thus, not responsible for the act.

On the issue of collateral estoppel, the COA noted the evidence of both the state’s and the trial court’s awareness concerning the role the lack of mental health treatment had in Miller’s actions, and the consideration given by the trial court to the mitigating evidence of substantial grounds that excused or justified the crime.

With that in mind, the panel concluded Miller did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue of his criminal responsibility in the criminal case.

“Additionally, under the circumstances presented here it would be otherwise unfair to apply collateral estoppel to preclude Miller from attempting to rebut the inference of his sanity established by his plea of guilty but mentally ill,” Baker wrote. “Consequently, Providers, whose burden it was to show they were entitled to the use of collateral estoppel, have failed, and the trial court’s application of collateral estoppel to preclude Miller’s civil claim was in error.

“While we recognize that our holding allows for potentially inconsistent determinations of fact in a criminal trial and a subsequent civil action, we nonetheless believe that, in the circumstances before us, affording Miller the opportunity to have his day in court to fully litigate his medical malpractice claim overrides our apprehension about the potential for inconsistent determinations,” Baker continued.

But the appellate court also voiced its concern that refusing “to look behind the curtain of the negotiated guilty plea” would require every criminal defendant with a potential civil suit to proceed with a criminal trial and, in turn, “result in the acceptance of fewer plea agreements, which would, in turn, cause our trial courts to function less efficiently.”

“Based on the foregoing, we conclude Providers failed to show that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding the allegations of Miller’s complaint and that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” Baker concluded. “Therefore, summary judgment was not proper. We reverse and remand this matter for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Miller’s grandmother, Betty Miller, also sued the defendants in a separate matter in 2018  for alleged negligent treatment of her grandson.

Indiana Supreme Court justices in October 2021 reversed the denial of Betty’s claim against the hospitals, remanding for reconsideration of her motion to amend under Indiana Trial Rule 15(C).

Then in a separate interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of defendants’ motions for summary judgment in Betty’s case under Indiana Code § 34-30-16-1.

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