- Third-party medical malpractice lawyers concur with the June 2021 Indiana Supreme Court majority opinion broadly defining the use of the word “Patient” in Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act.
- After experiencing a loss of muscle control, an opiate-prescribed driver crashes and kills a mother and daughter
- Personal Representative for the deceased, Jeffrey Cutchin, filed a proposed complaint with the Indiana Department of Insurance against the driver’s prescribing physician and his clinic claiming sub-standard care leading to the wrongful death of his wife and daughter.
- Cutchin (Plaintiff) also filed a civil complaint in federal court against the Indiana Patient Compensation Fund (Defendant – “Fund”) for medical malpractice.
- Cutchin agreed to settle with the physician and the clinic for the maximum amount allowed under the Medical Malpractice Act but reserved the right to seek excess damages from the Fund.
- The Fund claimed the Medical Malpractice Act did not cover third-party non-patients, Claudine and Adelaide Cutchin and the court entered a judgment favoring the Fund.
- Plaintiff appealed his claim to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
- At the request of the appellate court, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled on one of two questions of law relating to the Medical Malpractice Act and the Plaintiff prevailed as an eligible claimant under the Act.
Third-party medical malpractice lawyers
Third-party medical malpractice lawyers test the waters in the case of Cutchin v. Beard concerning the supreme court’s ruling on a single question of law. The appellate court asked the Indiana Supreme Court if the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act (MMA) applies to individuals who did not receive medical care from a negligent provider but were injured because of the providers’ act of negligence.
The court came to a unanimous conclusion. Four Justices settled upon a broad interpretation of the Act’s use of the word “patient.” In his opinion, Justice Slaughter writes: “We [the Court] will not ignore the [Indiana Medical Malpractice] statute’s language in favor of what the [Patient Compensation] Fund perceives to be the legislature’s intent.”
History of the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act
In 1975, the Indiana General Assembly passed the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act (MMA). Prior to the malpractice legislation, insurance companies were withdrawing from the market due to an increasing rate of medical malpractice claims combined with growing damage awards. And physicians, particularly in rural areas, were leaving the state, creating a shortage of physicians.  Tier one of the Act capped a qualified medical provider’s liability to reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance. Physicians’ liability was capped for the purpose of slowing a statewide rapid brain-drain response to an alarming number of malpractice claims.
At the same time, the MMA established the Patient’s Compensation Fund, a state program that helps victims seeking excess compensation for damages that exceed the providers’ limits of liability.
Since its inception, the MMA has intermittently adjusted the two-tier patient recovery caps for inflation. In 2017 when the accident occurred, the first-tier maximum recovery from a qualified doctor was $250,000. And the second-tier allowable under the Patient’s Compensation Fund for damages in excess of $250,000 was capped at $1,000,000.
The purpose of the Patient Compensation Fund
The Indiana Medical Malpractice Act establishes a Fund, state Indiana personal injury lawyers, which may be accessed by medical malpractice victims for the purpose of recovering excess damages. The Fund was created to:
- Allow victims to recover the compensation they deserve up to a fixed amount
- Provide excess insurance coverage for participating healthcare providers
The accident triggering the medical malpractice claim
Early in 2017, Sylvia Watson drove her car while under the influence of medications prescribed by her physician. While approaching a red light, Watson became unable to lift her foot from the accelerator to apply the brake. Due to a loss of muscle control, she told her passenger, “I can’t stop!” Watson ran the red light and crashed into a vehicle. She died from her injuries as did the driver of the other vehicle, Claudine Cutchin, and her passenger daughter, Adelaide Cutchin.
The claims for medical malpractice
As personal representative of his wife and daughter’s estates, Jeffrey Cutchin filed a proposed medical malpractice complaint against Watson’s physician and clinic (Provider 1 and Provider 2) with the Indiana Department of Insurance. His claim against the providers fell under the provisions of Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act.
Cutchin also filed a civil claim in the United States District Court against the Patient Compensation Fund for excess damages from the wrongful deaths of his wife and daughter.
The treating physician’s care
Sylvia Watson had been under the care of her physician and clinic for approximately seventeen years. Her doctor prescribed many drugs, including a controlled substance or opiate. Watson’s surviving passenger/granddaughter later confirmed that Watson ingested two pills from a prescription bottle shortly before the accident. After the deadly crash, her bloodwork confirmed the presence of opiates.
While under the care of her physician, Watson had reported falling twice but her providers failed to act on this information. In his Complaint, Cutchin alleged the providers rendered sub-standard care to the patient which proximately caused and contributed to the wrongful deaths of Claudine and Adelaide by failing to:
- Screen Watson for cognitive impairment
- Adjust her medications to address the loss of muscle control
- Discuss the dangers of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of prescribed medications
- Ask the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles to assess her driving ability
Plaintiff’s tier-one claim for damages against the Indiana Department of Insurance
Cutchin sought tier-one damages from the Department of Insurance under the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act. Among other ommissions, third-party medical malpractice lawyers noted that Cutchin charged Watson’s providers with negligence. And further, for failing to warn Watson she should not be driving because of known motor and cognitive effects of her medications.
The settlement that released the physician and clinic from further liability
Providers 1 and 2 settled with Jeffrey Cutchin. The parties agreed to the limits of the physician’s coverage amounting to $250,000. But Cutchin reserved the right to pursue his civil claim for tier 2 damages against the Fund.
Plaintiff’s tier 2 claim against the Patient Compensation Fund for excess damages
The claimant’s allegations made by third-party medical malpractice lawyers
Jeffrey Cutchin’s claim rested on the argument that the settlement with the physician was conclusive of liability under the MMA. And therefore, the Fund was excluded from contesting the applicability of the MMA.
The Fund’s assertions
The Fund’s administrator asserted a doctor/patient relationship was non-existent between the physician and the deceased third parties. Therefore, neither mother nor daughter qualified as “Patients” within the meaning of the MMA. Hence, Jeffrey Cutchin as personal representative was ineligible for compensation from the Fund.
Summary Judgment cross-motions
Both parties filed cross-motions for Summary Judgment. But the federal court decided in favor of the Fund. So Cutchin appealed.
The appellate court asks for guidance on points of law says, third-party medical malpractice lawyers
The appellate court determined there was insufficient case law to resolve the claim. So they asked the Indiana Supreme Court for guidance on two points of law:
- Is the Fund (the only source for excess med-mal damages) prohibited from contesting a claim after a qualified provider settles with the claimant?
- And does the MMA cover medically untreated individuals who were injured due to the provider’s negligence in treating someone else?
Since the court answered the second question certifying Cutchin as an eligible claimant, the justices did not answer the first.
Indiana Supreme Court addresses Cutchin’s eligibility for excess damages from the Fund
Justices agreed. Given the facts of the claim, and the statute language, Cutchin was eligible to seek damages from the Fund.
Who is a “patient?” A broad definition emerges
As stated in the Medical Malpractice Act, the court broadly defined the ambiguous definition of “Patient” :
“Patient” means an individual who receives or should have received health care from a health care provider, under a contract, express or implied, and includes a person having a claim of any kind, whether derivative or otherwise, as a result of alleged malpractice on the part of a health care provider. Derivative claims include the claim of a parent or parents, [Emphasis Added] guardian, trustee, child, relative, attorney, or any other representative of the patient including claims for loss of services, loss of consortium, expenses, and other similar claims.”
In the court’s opinion, Justice Slaughter wrote that two categories of “patients” exist.
First, the court defined a “traditional patient,” as “an individual who receives or should have received health care from a health care provider, under a contract, express or implied.”
The court interpreted the second category, “statutory patient,” as “a third-party whose claim results from a provider’s malpractice to someone in the first category, namely, a “traditional patient.”
Experienced Third-Party Medical Malpractice Lawyers
If you or someone you know has suffered injuries or died as a result of a provider’s negligence, call the experienced Third-party Indiana medical malpractice lawyers at Ward & Ward Law Firm. Call 317-639-9501 today and ask for attorney Charlie Ward. We are happy to offer injured parties a free consultation, without obligation.
 As of June 30, 2019, the total amount a malpractice victim may recover from both tiers is $1,800,000. Tier 1 and Tier 2 break down respectively as $500,000 and $1,300,000.