Nelson v. Lindaman, 13–0719.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation867 N.W.2d 1
Docket NumberNo. 13–0719.,13–0719.
PartiesShannon and Danny NELSON, Individually, and on Behalf of E.N. f/k/a E.N., a Minor, Appellees, v. Lynn M. LINDAMAN, Lynn M. Lindaman, M.D., P.L.C. d/b/a Lindaman Orthopaedic, and Mercy Medical Center —Des Moines, Appellants.
Decision Date24 April 2015

John T. Clendenin, Hayward L. Draper, Ryan G. Koopmans, and Jess W. Vilsack of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants Lynn M. Lindaman and Lynn M. Lindaman, M.D., P.L.C.

Connie L. Diekema, Erik P. Bergeland, Kellen B. Bubach of Finley, Alt, Smith, Scharnberg, Craig, Hilmes & Gaffney, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant Mercy Medical Center—Des Moines.

Eric M. Updegraff of Stoltze & Updegraff, P.C., Des Moines, and Jeff Carter and Zachary C. Priebe of Jeff Carter Law Offices, P.C., Des Moines, for appellees.


WATERMAN, Justice.

In this appeal, we must address the immunity from civil liability afforded by Iowa Code section 232.73 (2009) for a physician participating in a child abuse assessment. The physician treated the infant victim's broken arm and told the investigator for the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) the father's version of how the injury occurred was plausible. The baby was left in his parents' care and three weeks later suffered a severe brain injury

while with his father.

The infant's adoptive parents filed this medical malpractice action, alleging the physician's negligence and reckless or willful conduct was a proximate cause of the baby's subsequent injuries because the DHS relied on his assessment to initially decide to leave the baby with the baby's father. The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting the physician participated in the DHS assessment in good faith and therefore is immune from liability under section 232.73. The district court ruled that questions of fact precluded summary judgment, and we allowed the defendants' interlocutory appeal.

For the reasons explained below, we hold the defendants are entitled to good-faith immunity under section 232.73. Undisputed facts establish the physician participated in good faith in the DHS assessment. We therefore reverse the order denying summary judgment and remand the case for the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The parents of E.N., a three-week-old infant, brought him to the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center with a broken arm on June 18, 2009. His father, Jonas Neiderbach, claimed that he heard a snap as he set his baby down with his arm behind him. Dr. Scott Barron, a pediatric emergency room physician, did not believe the father's story. Dr. Barron believed the spiral fracture

could not have been caused by E.N.'s body weight, especially because the baby's bones were pliable. Dr. Barron reported his concerns to the DHS, which began a child abuse investigation under Iowa Code section 232.70. DHS caseworker Darla Brown came to the hospital, spoke with Dr. Barron and E.N.'s parents, and reviewed E.N.'s medical records. Meanwhile, Dr. Barron referred E.N. to Dr. Selover, who agreed the injury was consistent with abuse. Dr. Selover questioned the father's story because at E.N.'s age infants typically extend their arms forward rather than backwards. Dr. Selover contacted Dr. Lindaman for assistance in treating the fracture. Dr. Lindaman lacked significant experience evaluating claims of child abuse in infants, but as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon was well qualified to treat the fracture.

On June 19, Dr. Lindaman saw E.N. and successfully immobilized the arm. Dr. Lindaman noted in his treatment plan, “At this time the injury does fit with the mechanism described. I don't see any signs of any other skeletal trauma.” Meanwhile, Brown had already told the Polk County Attorney she would probably be requesting a no-contact order against the father. Brown phoned Dr. Lindaman to continue gathering information for her assessment. Her notes of their conversation state:

This worker spoke[ ] with Dr. Lindaman.... Dr. Lindaman indicated that if the father was holding baby by the chest and laying him down on the bed, placing him down with one side of his body coming into contact with the bed first, that it was plausible that the arm on that side of the body could get pinned under his body behind him.
This worker questioned whether a child, weighing only 8 lbs. 11 oz., would have enough force to create this injury. I also provided information that dad had provided a different explanation with how he laid [E.N.] down, with one hand under its head and the other under its butt. I also questioned whether a crying child's arm would go back behind him as he would more likely to be pulling his arms tight in front of him. Through this line of questioning, he stated on several occasions, “the mechanism they described fits the fracture seen.”
Dr. Lindaman also indicated that he did not see any other injuries. He also stated that the family appeared appropriate and they brought [E.N.] in immediately. Dr. Lindaman stated that he saw no evidence to indicate healing of the fracture, which would indicate it was consistent with the time frame provided by parents. All these factors lead to his assessment of the injury.

Following her conversation with Dr. Lindaman, Brown decided not to seek a no-contact order and allowed E.N. to go home with a family safety plan in place. E.N.'s parents and paternal grandfather, with whom E.N. lived, agreed that E.N.'s father would not be left alone with E.N. Due to her continuing concerns and what she saw as conflicting medical opinions, Brown spoke with her supervisor and scheduled a multidisciplinary team meeting for June 30 to discuss E.N.'s case.

On June 26, Dr. Lindaman conducted a follow-up visit with E.N. at his office. Dr. Lindaman performed a physical examination while E.N. remained in his mother's arms. The arm bone was in good alignment and x-rays taken that day showed good early healing. Dr. Lindaman focused on the healing arm bone fracture without examining E.N. for signs of any other injuries. It is unknown whether a full body examination that day would have detected the rib fractures

that were discovered twelve days later.

The multidisciplinary team meeting on June 30 involved representatives of the Polk County Attorney's Office, the DHS, Des Moines police, and medical professionals. Every medical professional present agreed that E.N.'s injuries could not have occurred as the father described them. Dr. Oral reviewed the radiographs

with two additional colleagues including another pediatric orthopedic specialist to confirm that the story the father told was inconsistent with the type of injury. After receiving an email from Dr. Oral, Brown prepared the paperwork requesting a no-contact order for E.N.'s father on July 6. Meanwhile, Dr. McAuliff explained the reasons for the multidisciplinary team's conclusions to Dr. Lindaman, including the fact that infant flexor tone at one month does not allow an infant's arms to easily fall behind its body. After that discussion, Dr. Lindaman did not change his original opinion regarding biomechanics, but acknowledged the flexor tone information made the father's story very unlikely.

The court entered the no-contact order on Wednesday, July 8. Normally, such orders are served immediately. However, the DHS decided to serve the no-contact order on Friday, July 10 when the family returned from a nearby camping trip. In fact, the family was not camping. E.N.'s grandfather (a DHS employee) took E.N. to DHS headquarters the afternoon of July 8 to meet his coworkers, and E.N. appeared to be in good health at that time. The DHS did not attempt to serve the order that afternoon. On the evening of July 8, E.N. was admitted to the hospital with massive brain injuries

. E.N. also had seventeen rib fractures, some fresh and some older.

E.N.'s mother and father were charged with child endangerment. The mother pled guilty and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. The father was found guilty by a Polk County jury and sentenced to fifty years in prison. See State v. Neiderbach, 837 N.W.2d 180, 189 (Iowa 2013).

In an affidavit executed January 10, 2013, Dr. Lindaman described his involvement with E.N. and the DHS. He described his impression of being called in for a limited consultation regarding the treatment of a fracture. He states that he was aware other physicians were already evaluating child abuse issues, and therefore he

made no effort to make my own evaluation of the credibility of the father with regard to the medical history.... The only opinion I developed was that ... the history could possibly be consistent with the type of spiral humeral fracture

I observed in this child.

Dr. Lindaman also described his phone call with Brown as follows:

As the DHS investigator's notes of the call they had with me indicate, I refused to give them any opinion regarding the credibility of the father's story or regarding child abuse, even though they raised with me some issues that they thought undercut his credibility. The reason I refused to give them any opinion regarding credibility and child abuse is because I had not performed an investigation regarding child abuse. Therefore, each time the DHS raised an issue concerning that, I repeated the only opinion I could help them with for their assessment; namely, my opinion that, as a matter of biomechanics, the mechanism that the parents had described to me fit the fracture seen, by which I meant that the father's story about the arm being pinned and twisted behind the child's back, if true, could be consistent with a spiral humeral fracture

occurring in that arm.

E.N. was subsequently adopted by Shannon and Danny Nelson. On June 10, 2011, they filed this action individually and on behalf of E.N. They alleged Dr. Lindaman negligently failed to detect and report the child abuse and that Mercy Medical Center—Des Moines was vicariously liable for Dr. Lindaman's negligence.1 The Nelsons...

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