In a recent decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling from the Marion Circuit Court, holding that an Indiana father who watched his son die after he was prematurely sent home from the hospital without his injuries being properly treated could recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress independently from damages awarded under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute. Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund vs. Gary Patrick, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Christopher Patrick, Deceased, No. 49A02-0807-CV-614 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009).
A tragic set of circumstances surrounds this case. Back in 2002, a thirty-one year old man was involved in a motor vehicle accident and was transported to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Evansville, Indiana, where he was treated for a broken wrist, broken nose, and abdominal trauma. He was discharged the following day after the accident.
At the time the man lived with his father. The evening of the day the son was released from the hospital, he began vomiting blood. His father called 911, but by the time EMTs arrived, the son had died from an untreated ruptured colon caused by seatbelt trauma during the accident.
Following his son’s death, the father individually and as a personal representative of his son’s estate, brought a medical malpractice claim against the doctor who treated his son at St. Mary’s Medical Center. The father also claimed damages stemming from his own emotional distress caused by watching his son die before him.
The father settled with the doctor and health care providers for $250,000. He then filed a petition individually and as personal representative of his son’s estate for payment of excess damages out of Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund (“the Fund”). The Fund argued at trial court that father’s individual damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress were not recoverable under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute found in IC 34-23-1-2.
The trial court disagreed. On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in deciding the issue of whether the father had an independent claim for damages for emotional distress in conjunction with his claim under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute.
In reaching its holding, the Court explained the difference between a derivative claim and an independent claim for emotional distress. A claim is independent if it may be brought irrespective of the merits of an accompanying tort, whereas a derivative claim may be brought only where a separate, related claim is actionable. In the case at hand, the father argued his emotional damages arose from the negligence of the doctor treating his son, thus his claim arises in medical malpractice. Moreover, father is considered a “patient” for purposes of Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act. Consequently, it does not alter the existence or nature of the medical malpractice that occurred simply because the claim has to be brought under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute due to the son’s death.
Finally, the Court reasoned that even though father did not witness the medical malpractice occur at the hospital, he witnessed the death of his loved one which was caused by the doctor and health care providers. As a result, the father rightfully had an independent claim for damages stemming from emotional distress in conjunction with his claim under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute.