Woman in doctor's office frowning

Physicians are legally required to tell authorities when they suspect that a child has been abused. While they face potential criminal penalties, can they be held civilly liable for medical malpractice for failing to diagnose abuse or report it? That's the question currently before an Indiana judge.

Four years ago, a 1-year-old baby was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend, who is now serving a 55-year sentence. The mother was convicted of neglect leading to her son's death. Her conviction was reversed on appeal.

Baby Was Examined Months Earlier

However, the boy's father says that the doctor who examined his son six months earlier should have recognized and reported signs of abuse to the Indiana Department of Child Services and the police after the boy's mother brought him to the hospital with a bruised face and cut lip.

She told him that a toy had been dropped on the baby's head accidentally. That's also the story the boyfriend told DCS when the father notified them. That agency and the hospital are also defendants in the suit.

However, the doctor wrote in his report that although he was "somewhat concerned" about the amount of bruising, he didn't "feel at this time a state of abuse exists." The attorney for the father argued that if the doctor had properly diagnosed the boy's injuries and reported them, he could be alive today.

Was a Legal Precedent Established?

The doctor's attorney argued in a May 5 hearing that the murder cannot be linked to his client's actions or inactions months earlier. He cited another case involving a child's death where an Indiana appeals court dismissed a malpractice suit, ruling that a person cannot be civilly sued for failure to report child abuse. The doctor was not charged criminally for failure to report suspected abuse.

The plaintiff's attorney disagreed. He argued that a doctor shouldn't receive "civil immunity" from malpractice for "failing to report an infant's abusive head trauma."

Regardless of decisions in other cases, when someone believes that medical malpractice is to blame for a loved one's death, it's worthwhile to seek legal advice. By holding the right people and entities legally responsible, other lives may be saved.