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COA Prescribes Dose of Civil Liability for Mute Medics

Posted on Monday, May 14, 2018

Have you ever wondered whether mandatory reporters will really be held to have civil liability if they fail to report suspected child abuse? The Court of Appeals addressed this issue in the Estate of Rufus Young JR. v Detroit Medical Center and Children's Hospital, et al. In this case, a doctor failed to report suspected child abuse where the child, who had a history of abuse, exhibited bruising during examination. The doctor said that he did not report suspected abuse because the explanation of the foster mother seemed sincere and she was genuinely concerned. Sadly, the child was murdered a short time later after suffering 11 blows to the head at the hands of his foster dad. The personal representative of the child’s estate sued the doctor and hospital. The physician was sued under a theory of ordinary negligence for his failure to follow the mandatory reporting statutes, MCL 722.623 and MCL 722.622. The hospital was sued on the basis of vicarious liability.

The Defendants filed Motions for Summary arguing that Plaintiff should have brought a medical malpractice claim and that the hospital could not be vicariously liable where the statute provided that only the person failing to report was liable. The Trial Court granted the physician's motion but denied DMC's motion.

On appeal, the COA held that summary was inappropriately granted because the doctor is liable for failing to report as a mandatory reporter under the statute and that such a claim can be brought under ordinary negligence. The COA reasoned that identifying suspected child abuse does not require expert medical knowledge as demonstrated by the fact that the statute specifically identifies mandatory reporters who are not medical professionals.

Additionally, the COA opined that imposing civil liability on doctors is consistent with purpose of child welfare law because it encourages medical professionals to be vigilant and take an active role in reporting suspected abuse. The COA further held that the hospital could be vicariously liable because the common-law doctrine of vicarious liability is not abrogated simply because the statute specifically imposes liability on the non-reporter. The Court noted, “such a doctrine cannot be abolished by implication.”

The bottom line is that there is a reason the Legislature listed “mandatory” reporters, not “suggested” reporters—it’s a duty that should be taken seriously no matter who you’re insured by. Given that this is a highly contested issue (see Dissent), the prognosis for further appellate action looks good--stay tuned.

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