An Indiana physician who reported suspected medical child abuse to authorities as required by law cannot use the state’s anti-SLAPP law to dismiss a malpractice claim, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled last week. It was the first time the Supreme Court had considered the issue.
According to the court decision, a pediatrician concluded in 2013 that a patient was the victim of medical child abuse (formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy), and her diagnosis was communicated to the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS). After a court reversed DCS’ determination of neglect by the child’s parents, the parents filed the malpractice suit against the physician, claiming that her diagnosis of medical child abuse fell below the standard of care.
Before an Indiana Department of Insurance medical review panel could consider the case, the physician requested a legal ruling and dismissal, arguing that (1) her report to DCS was protected by the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law; and (2) she has immunity from being sued under Indiana’s mandatory child abuse reporting law.
The Indiana Supreme Court decision only addresses the anti-SLAPP defense. The court noted in its May 10 opinion that Indiana’s anti-SLAPP law is intended specifically to protect against lawsuits filed to keep someone from exercising their constitutional right of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest. It does not apply to the physician’s report of suspected child abuse to DCS, the court ruled.
The immunity provision in Indiana’s mandated reporting law could still protect the doctor from liability; the Supreme Court’s decision sent the case back to a trial court to decide whether it does.
ISMA will continue to follow this case. The Indiana Supreme Court decision is online