Ind. SC rules for hospital in medical records case

Jessica M. Karmasek Aug. 16, 2011, 1:00pm


INDIANAPOLIS (Legal Newsline) - The Indiana Supreme Court has reversed the decision of a trial court in favor of a mother who sued a hospital for medical malpractice and allegedly losing certain medical records.

The mother, Lisa Gordon, sued Howard Regional Health System d/b/a Howard Community Hospital, alleging it committed medical malpractice while caring for her son, Jacob, when he was born.

In another count of the complaint, Gordon sought separate damages for spoliation, saying the hospital had lost certain medical records associated with Jacob's care. The loss, Gordon alleged, made it impossible for her to pursue a medical malpractice claim against one of his doctors, who was also a defendant.

The Howard Circuit Court granted Gordon's partial summary judgment and authorized an interlocutory appeal by Howard Regional.

The court concluded that Howard Regional had a duty to maintain Gordon's medical records at least through the time of her records request. It also concluded that under Indiana law a separate cause of action for failure to maintain these records existed and that the hospital had breached its duty to maintain records under Indiana Code.

The trial court also held that Howard Regional "ha(d) created a significant gap in the records that would allow a medical panel or a fact finder to determine whether the care that was provided... met the relevant standard."

Howard Regional appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The state's high court granted transfer, thus vacating the opinion of the Court of Appeals.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, who authored the Court's Wednesday opinion reversing the trial court's judgment, said splitting up the defendants and the counts against them "blurs the distinction between actual defendants and others who may possess evidence but are not parties to the litigation."

Gordon's case is really a claim for first-party spoliation, Shepard said.

"The Gordons' motion for partial summary judgment sought a finding of liability against the Hospital for the count alleging spoliation. As we have declined to recognize that count as representing a separate cause of action, the Hospital was entitled to summary judgment on that claim and the trial court must be reversed as respects that count," the Court wrote.

Whether Gordon is entitled to any sanctions against the hospital for the loss of records is "an intensively fact-sensitive inquiry," the Court said.

"In the current state of the proceeding, relatively little is known of record about the role of the missing evidence as respects the claims against the various defendants, how and when and by whom the records went missing, the nature and availability of other evidence that may bear on the Gordons' malpractice claims, and so on," it wrote.

"In the course of further proceedings before the medical review panel and the trial court thereafter, a good deal more is likely to be learned about these facts and about whether a litigation sanction against the Hospital is warranted."

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