Minnesota child-abuse reporting law does not create civil liability

However, judges said the plaintiffs can use the statute to establish a medical liability claim.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Sept. 10, 2007

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A recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision relieves physicians of the threat of civil liability under the state's Child Abuse Reporting Act. But the decision still underscores doctors' responsibility as mandatory reporters of abuse or neglect, lawyers say.

The court found in an Aug. 16 ruling that the statute does not give Nykkole E. Becker's adoptive parents the right to sue Mayo Foundation doctors for allegedly failing to report suspected child abuse to the state.

In 1997, within the first two months after Nykkole's birth, her biological parents brought her to the hospital on several occasions with bone fractures and head trauma. Doctors did not report the injuries as suspected abuse, finding them consistent with the parents' account of dropping the baby, court documents show.

The father was eventually imprisoned for child abuse. In 2001, Nykkole's adoptive parents sued the hospital for failing to report the repetitive maltreatment. They claimed the doctors' alleged neglect contributed to Nykkole's permanent disabilities.

The court concluded, however, that state law already imposes criminal penalties on mandatory reporters who don't fulfill their duty, and the Legislature did not intend to create additional civil liability.

"The idea that the threat of civil liability will lead inexorably to increased reporting, and that this will reduce child abuse, has a certain appeal, but this appeal may be illusory," the opinion states. Judges suggested that further liability could be counterproductive and "contribute to the case overload ... and to unsubstantiated reports, which ultimately work against children in danger."

However, the high court let the Beckers pursue a medical liability claim and use the act as evidence to show whether the doctors violated the standard of care when they did not report Nykkole's condition to the state.

Nothing in the statute "preclude[s] the Beckers from addressing the issue of government reporting at trial insofar as it concerns the many treatment options available to [the Mayo Foundation] in fulfilling its duty to keep Nykkole Becker safe," judges said.

The ruling means the case will head to a new trial. No date has been set. An attorney for the Mayo Foundation declined to comment.

Doctors don't deny their critical role as mandatory reporters. But the medical community said that adding civil liability under the law would have been a mistake. It would have raised a number of questions affecting the doctor-patient relationship that are best left for lawmakers, not the courts, to address.

"You can't just willy-nilly go out and have a court assume it's in the best interest of public policy to have this civil cause of action," said Mark R. Whitmore, an attorney representing the Minnesota Medical Assn., the American Medical Assn./State Medical Societies Litigation Center, the American Academy of Pediatrics' Minnesota Chapter, and several other medical specialty groups that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

If lawmakers decide to take up the issue, they would have to consider whether civil liability would lead to better diagnosis and treatment of child abuse-related injuries, and whether doctors would be immune if they fail to report an injury they determine, in good faith, resulted from something other than abuse, physicians argued.

Whitmore said doctors always have been subject to medical liability claims in child-abuse cases, and the court simply clarified what relevant evidence may be used. He said it is too early to tell how the decision will play out. Nevertheless, it emphasizes that doctors "should continue to report appropriate cases of suspected abuse or neglect and to allow appropriate state agencies to get out and do their investigation," Whitmore added.

But Chris A. Messerly, the Beckers' attorney, said the ruling gives families a new remedy. Even though families cannot sue directly under the reporting statute, "the court recognized that a claim can be made against doctors when they choose not to report," he said.

A jury originally found the Mayo doctors negligent for not hospitalizing Nykkole longer after her biological parents brought her in. But the trial court prevented the family from arguing the doctors were required to report the abuse to protect the child from further harm.

Doctors are the first line of defense for abused children, Messerly said. If doctors' suspicions turn out to be wrong, the reporting statute gives them immunity, he said.

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