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Indiana Supreme Court: Death Sentenced Affirmed, Wrongful Death Act Examined
Posted in Litigation

On Tuesday, April 7, the Indiana Supreme Court issued two opinions.

In Ward v. State, the Court affirmed the death sentence of Roy Lee Ward, who raped and murdered a 15-year-old girl in Dale, Indiana.  This appeal followed Ward’s second trial; his first conviction was reversed due to prejudicial pretrial publicity.  Ward v. State, 810 N.E.2d 1042 (Ind. 2004).  This time, Ward pleaded guilty to the murder and rape charges, leaving only sentencing for trial.  The penalty phase jury determined that the charged aggravating circumstances were proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that the aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigating circumstances, and that a death sentence should be imposed.

In Ward II, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously rejected each of Ward’s arguments concerning (1) the constitutionality of Indiana’s death penalty statute; (2) the selection of jurors; (3) the admission of evidence; and (4) the appropriateness of his death sentence.

As to the appropriateness of his sentence, Ward sought broad relief under Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B), arguing that his death sentence was inappropriate in light of his character and the nature of the offense, but also raising distinct claims of trial court error.  This prompted the Court to explain that “claims of trial court error associated with its sentencing decision are conceptually distinct claims and are not part of the appellate review-and-revise function” under Appellate Rule 7(B).  While the Court went on to conduct the 7(B) analysis, Chief Justice Shepard, in concurring with the opinion, stated separately that he “continu[es] to believe that there is less justification for appellate alteration of sentence than there was when judges (rather than juries) were the final deciders of sentence.”

In its second opinion Tuesday, Butler v. Indiana Department of Insurance, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously held:

[U]nder the statute governing actions for the wrongful death of unmarried adult persons with no dependents, [Indiana Code section 34-23-1-2], in the event medical providers issue statements of charges for medical, hospital, or other health services but thereafter accept a reduced amount in full satisfaction of the charges due to contractual arrangements with the patient’s health insurers, Medicare, or Medicaid, the amount recoverable for reasonable medical and hospital expenses necessitated by the alleged wrongful conduct is the total amount ultimately accepted after such contractual adjustments, not the total of charges billed.  

Butler is the second opinion in a month involving the Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund, of which the Indiana Department of Insurance is administrator.

In Butler, the plaintiff initiated a claim for medical negligence against Clarian Health Partners, Inc. and individual health care providers pursuant to the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act; however, she died before the claim was resolved.  Her Estate continued the claim as a wrongful death action, and settled with Clarian for $250,000.  That enabling the Estate to proceed with the balance of its claim for damages against the Fund.

The Fund sought partial summary judgment, asserting that the Estate was entitled to recover only the expenses the decedent and her estate actually incurred for medical services rather than the total amount of medical bills received.  The Estate filed a cross motion on the same point.  The parties also stipulated to the amount of the bills issued to the decedent and agreed to a partial settlement eliminating all claims for damages from the Fund other than the difference between the amount billed to the decedent and her estate and the amount actually paid. The parties’ stipulations and partial settlement left only a legal issue for the Indiana Supreme Court:  Is a plaintiff entitled, under the Wrongful Death Act, to recover all amounts medical and hospital charges billed, or only those amounts the medical providers ultimately accept in full satisfaction of the charges?

The Court’s decision turned on the language of Indiana Code section 34-23-1-2(c)(3)(A), which provides in relevant part that wrongful death damages “may include but are not limited to . . . [r]easonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses necessitated by the wrongful act or omission.”  The Estate argued that this statutory language, which uses the open-ended phrase “but not limited to . . . expenses necessitated,” meant it could seek the amount billed. 

The Indiana Supreme Court acknowledged that, under the common law, plaintiffs in tort actions “may recover the reasonable value of medical services, regardless of whether the plaintiff is personally liable for them or whether they were rendered gratuitously.”  But, the Court explained, “the present case . . . does not present a common law claim but rather arises as a statutory cause of action that the common law did not recognize.”

Construing the statute narrowly, as it is in derogation of the common law, the Indiana Supreme Court concluded that Section 2(c)(3)(A) was unambiguous.  The plain language of the statute, the Court held, limits the amount recoverable for “[r]easonable medical . . . expenses necessitated” by the wrongful act to “the portion of the billed charges ultimately accepted” by the medical providers in full satisfaction of the charges.

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