Indiana Court of Appeals Examines Nuance of Medical Malpractice Proceedings Concerning Claims on Behalf of Deceased Persons

July 30, 2021

by: Colin E. Flora

     The question of who is the right person or entity to bring a claim can be a complicated issue. Take, for example, claims under the Indiana Wrongful Death Statutes. If the claim arises under the General or Adult Wrongful Death Statutes, then an estate must be opened on behalf of the statutory beneficiaries of the decedent. If, however, the claim is one under the Child Wrongful Death Statute, then an estate is not the appropriate vehicle for pursuing the claim, as it is to be brought by the parents or guardian of the child.

     Today, we look at an aspect of the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act that allowed a claim to survive where it may not have were it not subject to the Act. The focus of our discussion is the recent Indiana Court of Appeals opinion in The Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Dial. There, a man died and a proposed complaint was, as required by the Act, filed with the Indiana Department of Insurance (“IDOI”). An estate was opened on behalf of the deceased man and his wife was named the personal representative of the estate. The problem arises, however, because, just five days before the proposed complaint was filed, the wife also passed away. That meant that the proposed complaint, captioned as being “on behalf of Betty, individually and as wife of Robert, deceased,” purported to advance a claim on behalf of a person who was deceased at the time the case was initiated. After the better part of a decade of proceeding through the IDOI process and the case having been filed in court, the defendant filed for summary judgment, arguing the “proposed complaint was a legal nullity due to her death before the proposed complaint was filed with the IDOI, and therefore, the proposed complaint did not toll the applicable statute of limitations, which resulted in [the] suit being brought outside the statute of limitations period.”

     On review of the denial of summary judgment, the court of appeals observed that the fact that the action was initiated before the IDOI as opposed to an action brought in a trial court distinguished it from caselaw holding that a deceased person could not bring a claim. Mind you, once a case is filed, if a party dies, then Indiana Trial Rule 25(A) handles the substitution of parties to allow the deceased person to be replaced with a cognizable party. The court explained what makes a medical-malpractice action different:

We are not convinced, however, that the medical review process requires that a proposed complaint be filed by a living person as administrator of the estate of a deceased victim of alleged medical malpractice. “The purpose of the medical review panel is to ‘review medical malpractice complaints’” and “‘express [an] expert opinion as to whether or not the evidence supports the conclusion that the defendant or defendants failed to act within the appropriate standards of care as charged in the complaint.’” The central issue for the medical review panel was whether [Defendant’s] care for Robert fell below the applicable standard of care. The identity of the administrator of Robert’s estate is not relevant to that question. Even though the proposed complaint contained claims supposedly brought in Betty’s individual capacity, those claims were directly linked to damages incurred as a result of the allegedly negligent medical care given to Robert.

The court also found it informative that the defendant had waited many years—the IDOI proceedings was filed in October 2013 and the summary judgment sought in April 2020—triggering “the general principle that a party may not sit on its rights only to later take advantage of an alleged error.”

     Oddly, the opinion never addresses the impact of Community Hospital of Anderson & Madison County v. McKnight, which resolves the issue in my book. There, the Indiana Supreme Court reviewed the Medical Malpractice Act and held that the clear language of the Act made the appointment of a personal representative prior to the filing of a proposed complaint with the IDOI unnecessary. Specifically, the court interpreted the provisions now codified at Indiana Code §§ 34-18-8-1 and 34-18-2-25. The first provision directs that an action is to be commenced by “a patient or the representative of a patient”. The latter provision defines “Representative” as “the spouse, parent, guardian, trustee, attorney, or other legal agent of the patient.” Under McKnight and the later decision in Holmes v. ACandS, Inc., it seems to me that Dial was correctly decided.

     Join us again next time for further discussion of developments in the law.

Sources

*Disclaimer: The author is licensed to practice in the state of Indiana. The information contained above is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. Laws vary by state and region. Furthermore, the law is constantly changing. Thus, the information above may no longer be accurate at this time. No reader of this content, client or otherwise, should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included herein without seeking appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue.

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