Reversal: Paraplegic doctor’s estate denied full recovery in wrongful death suit

The estate of a deceased doctor was denied the full potential recovery it was entitled to after a hospital was awarded summary judgment in his wrongful death case, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

John Batchelder, a cardiologist who was also a paraplegic, was injured in a car accident in September 2015 that resulted in a cervical spine fracture. After the accident, an Indiana University Health Care Associates radiologist misread Batchelder’s x-rays and released him from the hospital too soon.

A second opinion revealed the fracture and John underwent neurosurgery, but he died several months later, just after filing a complaint for damages against the driver. The driver ultimately settled all claims arising from the collision for $1.25 million.

Frances Batchelder, special administrator of John’s estate, later filed a wrongful death complaint against Indiana University Health, Inc., and IUHP, alleging that their provision of negligent medical care resulted in John’s death. The hospital, however, asserted in a motion for summary judgment that the estate was not entitled to additional damages because the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act caps the estate’s damages at $1.25 million, and that it already obtained $1.25 million from the driver.

Although the estate argued that the setoff for the $1.25 million settlement should be deducted from the total damages or the value of the case, Marion Superior Judge Timothy Oakes ruled for IUHP on its argument that the $1.25 million setoff should be applied to the $1.25 million statutory limit, rendering the estate’s claims moot.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded that decision in the case of Frances Lorraine Batchelder, et al. v. Indiana University Health, Inc., et al.,19A-CT-02569.

“The (Palmer v. Comprehensive Neurologic Services, P.C., 864 N.E.2d 1093, 1099-1100 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007)) and (Indiana Dept. of Ins. v. Everhart, 960 N.E.2d 129, 138 (Ind. 2012)) decisions highlight a crucial omission in the instant case. In those cases, the jury or trial court determined the value of the case or the entirety of the recoverable damages incurred by the plaintiffs before the trial court applied any setoffs,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the appellate court.

“In the instant case, however, the trial court applied the setoff without first determining: (1) the value of the case or the extent of the Estate’s injury; and (2) whether the (Emma) Mourouzis settlement satisfied the Estate’s injury and made the Estate whole. Forgoing this threshold determination, the trial court found that the Mourouzis settlement satisfied the Estate’s losses such that the Estate was not entitled to pursue additional damages from IUHP. We have found no support for this conclusion,” it wrote.

The appellate court found that by prematurely applying the $1.25 million setoff to the statutory limit and offsetting the IUHP judgment to zero, without first determining the value of the estate’s case, the trial court denied it the potential full recovery to which the estate is legally entitled.

“Accordingly, we find that genuine issues of material fact exist; and, thus, as to the amount of damages, IUHP was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” it wrote. “For these reasons, the trial court erred in granting IUHP’s motion for summary judgment and finding that IUHP was entitled to judgment as a matter of law; we must, therefore, reverse the entry of summary judgment in favor of IUHP and remand for further proceedings.”

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