July 22, 2019

The decedent received inpatient treatment for mental illness for five months after which he was admitted to the defendant group home that offered supervised living for patients who do not require inpatient services.

The defendant group home, which is licensed as a Supervised Group Living home through the Indiana Department of Mental Health and Addictions and is a qualified health care provider in accordance with Indiana Code section 34-18-2-24.5, employed residential assistants who are responsible for helping residents develop or improve their ability to function independently. Specifically, resident assistants help the residents establish and maintain routines and manage daily activities like hygiene, self-administering medication, and transportation.

One of the defendant’s resident assistants alleged that on August 3, 2017, he walked into the living room where the decedent was watching television around midnight and told the decedent he had to go to bed because it was past curfew. The decedent allegedly refused and stated that he wanted to finish his show and drink first. The resident assistant alleged that he walked near the decedent to turn off the lamp and a struggle for the lamp ensued. When both men dropped the lamp, the resident assistant alleged that the decedent attempted to charge at him, and in response, the resident assistant fell back slightly, extended his right foot, and kicked the decedent, causing a large laceration to his right shin. The decedent reportedly fell backwards into his chair, and his shin started bleeding. The resident assistant then walked to the kitchen and called 911.

When the police arrived, the responding officer observed the decedent sitting on a chair in the kitchen with a large amount of blood around him. The decedent was still breathing and making grunting noises but he was unconscious. While waiting for medics to respond, the decedent suddenly stopped breathing and later died. The resident assistant was arrested for battery resulting in death.

The decedent’s Estate filed a complaint alleging that the resident assistant, acting in the course and scope of his employment, negligently or recklessly injured the decedent, resulting in his death. The complaint alleged that the defendant group home was vicariously liable for its resident assistant’s actions.

The defendant group home filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the Estate’s complaint raised allegations of medical malpractice but the Estate had failed to proceed through the required medical review panel process. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that the alleged conduct of the resident assistant is not unrelated to the promotion of a patient’s health or the provider’s exercise of professional expertise, skill, or judgment, and therefore the Estate’s claims fell under Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act (“the Act”). The Estate thereafter filed an appeal.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana (“Indiana Appellate Court”) stated in its opinion filed on July 12, 2019 that it must consider whether the Estate’s claim is based on the provider’s behavior or practices while acting in his professional capacity as a provider of medical services. A case sounds in ordinary negligence where the factual issues are capable of resolution by a jury without application of the standard of care prevalent in the local medical community. A claim falls under the Act where there is a causal connection between the conduct complained of and the nature of the patient health care provider relationship. The Act was not intended to extend to cases of ordinary negligence or premises liability.

Furthermore, when tortious acts are so closely associated with the employment that they arise naturally or predictably from the activities an employee was hired or authorized to do, they are within the scope of employment, making the employer liable. But tortious acts are not within the scope of employment when they flow from a course of conduct that is independent of activities that serve the employer.

The Indiana Appellate Court stated that the current test as to whether the Act applies to specific misconduct is to determine whether that misconduct arises naturally or predictably from the relationship between the health care provider and patient or from an opportunity provided by that relationship. Such conduct may include otherwise tortious or abusive conduct.

In the case it was deciding, the Indiana Appellate Court stated that the resident assistant’s attempt to enforce the decedent’s curfew was a part of the defendant group home’s provision of healthcare to the decedent. When the altercation occurred that injured the decedent, the resident assistant was naturally responding to the decedent’s physically aggressive behavior by defending himself. The resident assistant thereafter followed the defendant group home’s protocol by removing himself from the decedent’s immediate physical presence and waiting for law enforcement to assist with the decedent. “These facts and circumstances, together with the broadened scope of employment set forth in Cox, place the incident and injuries squarely within the scope of the Medical Malpractice Act.”

Therefore, the Indiana Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the Estate’s complaint.

Source Martinez v. Oakland Psychiatric Center, Inc., Opinion 18A-CT-2883.

If you or a loved one may have suffered serious harm as a result of negligence in a group home in Indiana or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find an Indiana medical malpractice lawyer, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your state, who may investigate your negligence claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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