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Indiana Supreme Court: 3 Opinions Issued On March 10
Posted in Litigation

On Tuesday, the Indiana Supreme Court issued three opinions.

In Atterholt v. Herbst, the Court addressed what proof the Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund may submit at a trial on damages when liability has already been established by a medical service provider’s settlement with the claimant.

In Herbst, a patient was admitted to the hospital after being diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia.  He died the same day from what was later determined to be fulminant myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart characterized by acute and severe onset.

Pursuant to the Medical Malpractice Act, Herbst’s Estate submitted a proposed complaint to a medical review panel seeking to bring a wrongful death action against the primary care physician and the hospital.  The medical review panel found that the physician had failed to meet the appropriate standard of care, but that the failure was not a factor in Herbst’s death.

After the panel’s ruling, the physician and hospital settled with the Estate under an agreement in which they contributed a total of $187,001 in cash and payments to purchase an annuity.  Under those circumstances, the Medical Malpractice Act gives claimants the ability to seek additional damages from Indiana’s Patient’s Compensation Fund.

When the Estate sought those “excess damages” from the Fund, the question at trial was whether the Fund could introduce evidence that, even with proper care, Herbst had a less than 10 percent chance of surviving the hospitalization and no ability to return to work.  The trial court excluded that evidence, believing it went solely to the issue of liability.  Under Indiana Code section 34-18-15-3(5), liability of the health care provider is already deemed “admitted and established” in proceedings against the Fund.  The Fund, however, argued that the evidence was relevant to establishing the amount of damages for which it is liable.  The Indiana Court of Appeals, in this published opinion, agreed with the Estate. 

The Indiana Supreme Court, however, unanimously agreed with the Fund.  Turning to ordinary definitions utilized in tort law cases, the Court reiterated the difference between the finding that one is “liable” and determining the amount of damages stemming from that liability:  “To say that one is ‘liable,’” the Court wrote, “does not establish the amount of damages.”  The Court also explained that the fact that evidence is relevant to liability does not mean it cannot also be relevant to damages.  “Relevance,” the Court wrote, “is not an either-or proposition.” Holding that the Fund’s proffered evidence was indeed admissible, the Court remanded to the trial court to reconsider the Fund’s liability.

In two other opinions Tuesday, the Indiana Supreme Court:

  • in a unanimous opinion in R.J.G. v. State, held “that a juvenile court may order a commitment to the Department of Correction and, in the same order, provide for probation following release from the Department of Correction.”  The ruling resolved a conflict between two opinions by the Indiana Court of Appeals over whether, pursuant to Indiana Code section 31-30-2-1, a juvenile court is divested of jurisdiction once it orders guardianship of a child to the Department of Correction, such that the court cannot order probation following the juvenile’s release.
  • in a 3-2 opinion in Jackson v. Schieble, held that liability under Restatement (Second) of Torts section 363 – which permits possessors of land to be held liable for harm caused by the condition of trees on land near a highway – does not extend to sellers of land who do not retain possession or control of routine maintenance of the trees.  The issue in Jackson, in which the plaintiff attempted to hold liable a vendor in a land-sale installment contract, was one of first impression under Indiana law.  In holding that no liability attached, the Indiana Supreme Court concluded that the fact the seller maintained insurance on the property and retained the right to approve changes to the land was evidence only of the seller’s protecting its collateral in the deal.  That evidence, the Court concluded, did not give rise to an inference that the seller “possessed” the land, as required under the Restatement.  Justices Dickson and Rucker dissented, believing the evidence created a disputed fact for trial.
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