A bill that would increase the number of payouts per year by the Indiana Patients Compensation Fund from 2 times to 4 has made it from the General Assembly to Gov. Pence’s desk. A copy of the bill is linked below for reference.
The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court’s holding that a medical malpractice complaint could only be deemed filed as of the date of mailing if, and only if, the complaint were sent out via registered or certified mail. This interpretation of Ind. Code § 34-18-7-3(b) excluded delivery services such as FedEx or UPS. Thus, a party filing a medical malpractice complaint via FedEx, as in this case, would have their complaint with the Dept. of Insurance deemed filed on the date of receipt by the DOI rather than the date it was sent out. Here, it meant the filing of the complaint occurred after the statute of limitations expired.
On a petition for rehearing (which was denied without any further opinion), the plaintiff raised for the first time that Ind. Code § 1-1-7-1(a) should control. That statute reads in relevant part:
If a statute enacted by the general assembly or a rule . . . requires that notice or other matter be given or sent by registered mail or certified mail, a person may use: (1) any service of the United States Postal Service [“USPS”] or any service of a designated private delivery service (as defined by the United States Internal Revenue Service) that: (A) tracks the delivery of mail; and (B) requires a signature upon delivery . . . .
Id. (emphasis added in opinion).
Thus, two issues were presented to the Court: 1) could the plaintiff raise this argument for the first time on rehearing, and 2) could the above statute control the application of Ind. Code § 34-18-7-3(b). The Supreme Court answered both of these questions in the affirmative.
As to the first point, the Court observed: “The crucial factor, however, in determining whether [the plaintiff] may interject what appears to be a new issue into the appeal is whether [the defendant] had unequivocal notice of the existence of the issue and, therefore, had an opportunity to defend against it.” Hochstedler v. St. Joseph Cnty. Solid Waste Mgmt. Dist., 770 N.E.2d 910, 918 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002), trans. denied. The Court found that the issue of whether the complaint was timely filed was clearly conveyed at all levels and so defendants’ objection on this argument was overruled.
On the second, the Court focused on two portions of the statute: 1) that the med mal statute required delivery by registered or certified mail in order to deem a complaint filed; and 2) that the filing of the complaint fell under the “or other matter” provision.
In closing the Court emphasized that its opinion was an elevation of “form over substance” and observed that there really was no difference anyway between filing a complaint via FedEx or UPS overnight and doing so via registered or certified mail.
Up for second reading today is Senate Bill 56, which would change the current processing and payout dates for the Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund from twice a year to four times per year.
Currently, medical malpractice cases that exceed the $250,000 cap may be resolved for up to another $1 million with the Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund (PCF). The trick however is that the PCF processes and pays out on these claims twice per year and all settlements require the approval of court on or before June 30 and December 31. The second of these dates is tricky because judges are hard to find the week between Christmas and New Years Day. If the parties miss the deadline, then it’s another six months before there can be a payout. Additional dates might put a little less pressure on the parties to scramble to settle cases or it might cause four rounds of chaos per year instead of two. Time will tell if it ends up passing.
IN CoA (Friedlander; Baker & Vaidik concur)
In this case, a punitive damages verdict was entered against Defendant. The case was subsequently settled but the Indiana Attorney General intervened and opposed the dismissal of the case, using its stake in the punitive damages component as leverage.
In holding that the Attorney General could not intervene or forestall the settlement, the Court of Appeals stated that the State’s interest was limited to the 75% of the funds paid into the clerk’s office on the punitive damages judgment. Essentially, the State had no right to interfere with the settlement of the case and should never have been invited to the table, so to speak, in the first place. Even if there is collusion between the underlying parties to settle for an amount in excess of the compensatory judgment (which was not the case here), the Court noted the State still would not have an interest since the statute is aimed at reining in punitive damage judgments and not at providing a source of revenue for the State.
What does it mean? Any and all Plaintiffs with potential punitive damage claims have one less deterrent from seeking such an award from the jury.
(Disclaimer: I was personally involved with this case for nearly two years so if any personal bias becomes apparent, that is why.)