Clarification of the Medical Malpractice Act in Cutchin v. Beard

By: Olivia N. Daily

In Cutchin v. Beard, the Indiana Supreme Court accepted a certified question from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and held that a Plaintiff who never received treatment from a qualified medical provider, but nonetheless suffered an injury from alleged malpractice, was a “patient” under the Medical Malpractice Act, and could therefore seek excess damages above the $250,000 statutory cap from Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund. Jeffrey B. Cutchin v. Amy L. Beard, Case No. 21S-CQ-48.

In 2017, the Plaintiff’s wife and daughter were killed after their vehicle was struck by motorist Sylvia Watson. At the time of the accident, Sylvia had opioids prescribed by her physician in her system. The Plaintiff filed suit against the physician asserting the physician breached the applicable standard of care by failing to warn Sylvia of the dangers of driving while taking opioids, screen her for cognitive impairment, adjust her medications, or ask the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to assess her ability to drive on the medication. The Plaintiff in this case argued that he qualified as a “patient” under the Medical Malpractice Act because he was alleging that negligent medical treatment rendered by the physician was the cause of the deaths of his wife and daughter. While this claim was neither derivative nor arising out of a traditional physician-patient relationship, the Plaintiff argued that the Medical Malpractice Act’s definition of “patient” applied to him because his claim arose out of alleged medical negligence. After Plaintiff filed suit in Federal Court, the Indiana Department of Insurance intervened in the action asserting the Plaintiff was not entitled to excess damages from the Fund because he was not a “patient” as defined by the Medical Malpractice Act. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals certified this question to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The Medical Malpractice Act defines a “patient” as “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.” When analyzing the statutory definition of “patient,” the Supreme Court noted that the statute as written could include two distinct types of plaintiffs: (1) a traditional patient, who receives direct care from a provider, and (2) a third party outside the patient-physician relationship with a claim under state law derived from such a relationship. The Court cited three cases that informed their decision: (a) Cram v. Howell, (b) Goleski v.  Fritz, and (c) Spangler v. Bechtel.

In Cram v. Howell, 680 N.E.2d 1096 (Ind. 1997), the Indiana Supreme Court determined that a doctor “owed a duty of care to take reasonable precautions in monitoring, releasing, and warning his patient for the protection of unknown third persons potentially jeopardized by the patient’s driving upon leaving the physician’s office.” Id. at 1098. The physician in Cram had administered immunizations and vaccinations that caused his patient to lose consciousness while driving, causing the patient’s death and injuring the Plaintiff. The Court determined that the Plaintiff could bring a claim under the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act, despite the fact that the Plaintiff was not a direct recipient of medical treatment or a family member possessing a derivative claim under Indiana law. The Court interpreted the definition in the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act as disjunctive, allowing for claims of any kind in addition to direct and derivative claims.

In Goleski v. Fritz, 768 N.E.2d 889 (Ind. 2002), the Indiana Supreme Court determined that plaintiffs outside the traditional physician-patient relationship could recover for medical negligence. They noted that the statutory definition of “patient” included derivative claimants who assert claims for their own damages, and applied the damages cap to derivative claims.

In Spangler v. Bechtel, 958 N.E.2d 458, (Ind. 2011), the Indiana Supreme Court analyzed whether parents of a child who died in utero should be considered “patients” for the purposes of the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act. The Defendant argued that because the Court in Spangler applied a similar analysis to the court in the instant case–that because the definition in the Medical Malpractice Act was so expansive and included claims of third parties that were not derivative claims–the parents were able to recover for their emotional distress resulting from alleged medical negligence.

These three cases, in conjunction, led the Indiana Supreme Court in the instant case to the conclusion that a plaintiff who falls outside the traditional physician-patient relationship and is asserting a non-derivative claim (i.e. not deriving from the patient’s injuries) can still be considered a “patient” under the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act.

Justice David penned a concurring opinion expressing concerns about the majority’s interpretation of the statute. He contends the “and” in the statutory definition is conjunctive in nature so derivative claims could be brought alongside claims of traditional patients. He expressed concern that plaintiffs not asserting derivative claims alongside traditional patients may be better served by having their claims evaluated in state court, rather than by a Medical Review Panel.

For questions about medical malpractice or other medical liability claims, please contact Olivia Daily at or your DSV attorney.

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