Ex-fertility doctor who used own sperm must face civil lawsuit, COA affirms

A former Indianapolis fertility doctor who used his own sperm to impregnate dozens of women through artificial insemination must face a negligence complaint brought against him by the son of one of his patients, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Wednesday.

When Elizabeth White sought artificial insemination from fertility doctor Donald Cline in 1981, she was told he would artificially inseminate her with donor sperm from an anonymous medical school resident. Cline also informed Elizabeth that the donor sperm would be used in no more than three successful artificial insemination procedures in a well-defined geographic area.

But that didn’t happen, she later learned. Elizabeth was among dozens of women whom authorities came to believe Cline impregnated with his sperm between the 1970s and 1980s at his Indianapolis clinic, without the women’s consent.

Cline was criminally charged with obstruction of justice and handed a one-year suspended sentence in 2017 after pleading guilty to charges that he lied to investigators when he denied wrongdoing. After his expired license was eventually surrendered to the Indiana Medical Licensing Board, the panel voted to bar Cline from ever applying for a license in Indiana again.

Last year, Indiana lawmakers made fertility fraud a Level 6 felony after finding no law on the books specifically prohibited what the doctor did. The Legislature also created a civil cause of action for fertility fraud, which enables the plaintiff to be awarded compensatory and punitive damages, or liquidated damages of $10,000.

Elizabeth’s son, Matthew White, learned as an adult that the “anonymous” sperm donor who impregnated his mother was actually Cline, according to an Associated Press report. 

The mother and son filed a proposed medical malpractice complaint against Cline in 2016 with the Indiana Department of Insurance, and later filed a joint multi-count complaint for damages against the appellants in the Marion Superior Court.

Cline and the defendants then filed an Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6) motion to dismiss Matthew’s claims for breach of contract, medical malpractice, and negligent hiring and retention, alleging that Matthew had failed to state claims for which relief could be granted. But after a hearing, the trial court concluded that Matthew had sufficiently stated breach of contract and negligence claims.

A panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in a Wednesday interlocutory appeal, finding that Matthew sufficiently stated breach of contract and tort claims for which relief can be granted. It thus concluded that there was no error in the trial court’s denial of the physician’s motion to dismiss in the case of Anonymous Physician 1, and Indianapolis Fertility, Inc., d/b/a Reproductive Endocrinology Associates v. Elizabeth White and Matthew White, 19A-CT-1262.

At the outset, the appellate court noted that it did not need to determine whether Matthew was a third-person beneficiary to the contract. Rather, it looked at Matthew’s allegations to determine whether they establish any set of circumstances under which he would be entitled to relief as a third-party beneficiary. Additionally, it sought to uncover whether plaintiffs “stated some factual scenario in which a legally actionable injury has occurred.”

Based on Matthew’s allegations and taking them as true, the appellate court ultimately concluded that a set of circumstances was established under which Matthew would be entitled to relief as a third-party beneficiary.

“Matthew has therefore stated a claim for which relief can be granted, and the trial court did not err in denying Appellants’ motion to dismiss Matthew’s breach of contract action,” Judge Rudolph Pyle, III wrote for the unanimous appellate court.

It decided similarly on Matthew’s tort claims, concluding that Matthew has pleaded the operative facts necessary to establish that the appellants owed him a duty of care.

In other words, because it does not appear to a certainty on the face of the complaint that Matthew is not entitled to relief, a dismissal of Matthew’s complaint would have been improper,” the appellate court wrote.

Lastly, the appellate panel found that Matthew also established a set of circumstances under which he would be entitled to damages proximately caused by the appellants’ breach of duty. Addressing whether he is entitled to damages for emotional distress, the appellate court found Bader v. Johnson, 732 N.E.2d 1212, 1216-17 (Ind. 2000) to be instructive.

“Here, because Matthew has stated a damages claim for which relief can be granted and placed Appellants on notice as to why he sues, Appellants may ‘flesh out’ specific evidentiary facts regarding Matthew’s damages through the discovery process. Whether Matthew can prevail on a claim for emotional distress damages will depend on those facts,” the panel concluded.

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