Stafford: Justices’ expansion of Medical Malpractice Act does harm

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Imagine you’re a patient recovering from surgery. You’re coming back around, gathering yourself as you awaken in the recovery room. You slowly rise from your bed and ease toward your first tentative steps. Unbeknownst to you, before your anesthesia had worn off, the floor had been freshly waxed. Your first step on the glossy surface is a slip into a hard fall and a serious injury.

Did the janitorial staff commit medical malpractice? That seemingly preposterous question just got real.

A divided Indiana Supreme Court recently passed judgment on a case in which only two of the five justices could find reason instead of a callous abstraction of the law. The callous abstraction prevailed, as increasingly seems to be the style of our times.

Two of the justices — Steven David and Christopher Goff — wanted to hear the appeal in Linda Martinez v. Oaklawn Psychiatric Center Inc., 18A-CT-2883, but they could not persuade a third, even by using concise reason.

The case concerns a man named Roy Martinez, who was a patient being treated for mental illness at a voluntary Oaklawn group home in St. Joseph County.

In an altercation with a resident assistant when Martinez would not turn off his TV after a midnight curfew because he wanted to finish watching his show, Martinez was kicked in the shin. And he bled to death. That’s how the record reads.

Three of Indiana’s five justices upheld lower court rulings that threw out the negligence lawsuit brought by Martinez’s mother, finding this somehow is a medical malpractice case. Thanks to this majority of our Indiana Supreme Court — Chief Justice Loretta Rush and justices Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter — Martinez’s mother may not get her day in court for several years.

Her case, after working its way to the state’s high court, must now go through the intentionally byzantine and costly medical review panel process that prefaces medical malpractice lawsuits. Presumably, this is so that qualified medical experts can delve into the highly technical question of whether kicking a man and leaving him to bleed to death meets some acceptable standard of care.

In dissenting from the denial of Martinez’s appeal, Justice David wrote one of the clearer bits of reason you will see in any court ruling. “I believe this is a case that sounds in ordinary negligence. … The only tie between this matter and medical malpractice is the fact that (the RA) happened to be employed by a healthcare facility. The provision of healthcare here is asking Martinez to go to bed.”

Maybe there is more to this case than meets the eye. But on the surface, the majority’s unjust ruling also gives this state’s Medical Malpractice Act a black eye.

Plenty of people see genuine problems with the Medical Malpractice Act for legitimate reasons of equity. Patients harmed face a burdensome bar just to get to court. They must in essence try their cases twice to get any relief, paying out for experts along the way, and then the relief they may be entitled to under the law is capped at levels that bear no semblance to the cost of health care, especially for those who will need long-term or lifetime treatment.

Do those who defend the act really want to assert with a straight face that kicking a patient who then bleeds out should be covered by the Medical Malpractice Act? How, exactly, does doing so comport with the Hippocratic ethos to “first, do no harm”?

Lofty ideals aside, it’s hard to imagine the Indiana Supreme Court’s rejection of this case won’t open the door to health care providers seeking the protections of the malpractice act against virtually any potential litigation over nonmedical claims.

My advice to anyone who steps foot inside an Indiana health care facility: watch your step.•

Dave Stafford is editor of Indiana Lawyer. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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