A.S. v. LaPorte Regional Health System

Decision Date22 February 2010
Docket NumberNo. 46A05-0909-CV-518.,46A05-0909-CV-518.
Citation921 N.E.2d 853
PartiesA.S. and M.S., Appellants/Plaintiffs, v. LaPORTE REGIONAL HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., f/k/a LaPorte Hospital, Inc. and LaPorte Regional Physicians Network, Inc., f/k/a Lakeland Area Health Services, Appellees/Defendants.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Kenneth J. Allen, Robert D. Brown, Kenneth J. Allen & Associates, P.C., Valparaiso, IN, Attorneys for Appellants.

David C. Jensen, Louis W. Voelker, Eichhorn & Eichhorn, LLP, Hammond, IN, Attorneys for Appellee LaPorte Regional Physicians Network.

OPINION

BRADFORD, Judge.

Appellants/Plaintiffs A.S. and M.S. appeal from the trial court's entry of summary judgment in favor of Appellee/Defendant LaPorte Regional Physicians Network, Inc. ("LRPN"). We affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

As of February 1, 2002, A.S., an employee of LaPorte Hospital ("the Hospital") had worked in a phlebotomy laboratory in the Heritage Place building in LaPorte for approximately one year. The laboratory was located in Suite 308 of Heritage Place, a suite known as the "Specialty Center." As it happened, the laboratory was located in space the Hospital, which owned Heritage Place, had leased to LRPN. LRPN, however, did not occupy, possess, or control the laboratory space in which A.S. worked. Moreover, no employees of LRPN worked in the laboratory or had any right to control it in any respect. The Hospital provided all necessary materials and safety equipment to A.S. and her fellow employees.

On February 1, 2002, A.S. was working in the laboratory, drew the blood of an AIDS patient, and sealed the blood into a test tube. After centrifuging the sample, A.S. opened the test tube over a sink. As A.S. did so, some of the blood splashed into her right eye. A.S. was later found to be HIV-positive.

On October 17, 2002, A.S. and her husband M.S. filed a negligence suit against, inter alia, LRPN, contending that it "owned, operated, managed, maintained or controlled" Heritage Place on February 1, 2002, and that it "undertook the duty to establish a proper policy and procedure for universal precautions and personal protection from exposure to infectious agents at Heritage Place and to assure that personal [sic] handling potentially infectious materials were provided with necessary personal protective equipment and supplies." Appellant's App. pp. 16-17. A.S. alleged that she had contracted AIDS, and M.S. alleged loss of consortium, due to LRPN's negligence.

On January 15, 2009, LRPN filed a summary judgment motion, contending that it owed no duty of care to A.S. On April 30, 2009, A.S. and M.S. filed a response to LRPN's motion, contending that LRPN owed a duty to A.S. stemming from federal and state regulations, the lease agreement between the Hospital and LRPN, and LRPN's in-concert actions with the Hospital. On August 12, 2009, following a hearing, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of LRPN.

DISCUSSION AND DECISION
Summary Judgment Standard of Review

When reviewing the grant or denial of a summary judgment motion, we apply the same standard as the trial court. Merchs. Nat'l Bank v. Simrell's Sports Bar & Grill, Inc., 741 N.E.2d 383, 386 (Ind.Ct. App.2000). Summary judgment is appropriate only where the evidence shows there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Id.; Ind. Trial Rule 56(C). All facts and reasonable inferences drawn from those facts are construed in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, a party must demonstrate that the undisputed material facts negate at least one element of the other party's claim. Id. Once the moving party has met this burden with a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to establish that a genuine issue does in fact exist. Id. The party appealing the summary judgment bears the burden of persuading us that the trial court erred. Id.

Negligence and Duty of Care

To prevail on a theory of negligence, a plaintiff must prove: (1) that the defendant owed plaintiff a duty; (2) that it breached the duty; and (3) that plaintiff's injury was proximately caused by the breach. Dennis v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 831 N.E.2d 171, 173 (Ind.Ct. App.2005), trans. denied. Summary judgment is rarely appropriate in negligence cases because they are particularly fact sensitive and are governed by a standard of the objective reasonable person, which is best applied by a jury after hearing all the evidence. Rhodes v. Wright, 805 N.E.2d 382, 387 (Ind. 2004). Nonetheless, summary judgment is appropriate when the undisputed material evidence negates one element of a negligence claim. Id. at 385. Whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff is a question of law for the court to decide. N. Ind. Pub. Serv. Co. v. Sharp, 790 N.E.2d 462, 466 (Ind.2003).

Ill. Bulk Carrier, Inc. v. Jackson, 908 N.E.2d 248, 253 (Ind.Ct.App.2009), trans. denied. Appellants contend that the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of LRPN, arguing that LRPN had a duty of care with respect to A.S. that arose from (1) its lease contract with the Hospital, (2) federal and state regulations regarding safety in the workplace, and (3) its "in-concert" actions with the Hospital.

I. Whether LRPN had a Duty of Care to A.S. Arising from its Lease Contract with the Hospital

Appellants contend that LRPN contracted a duty of care to A.S. through its lease agreement with the Hospital for Heritage Place, in which it agreed, inter alia, to comply with all applicable laws and regulations in the use of the leased premises and not to permit any illegal business to be conducted on the premises. A lease is interpreted in the same way as is any other contract. Chesterfield Management, Inc. v. Cook, 655 N.E.2d 98, 102 (Ind.Ct.App.1995), reh'g denied, trans. denied. The primary goal of contract interpretation is to give effect to the parties' intent. Beiger Heritage Corp. v. Montandon, 691 N.E.2d 1334, 1336 (Ind.Ct.App.1998). Accordingly, when the terms of a contract are clear and unambiguous, they are conclusive and the court will not construe the contract or look to extrinsic evidence. Id. Rather, we will merely apply the contractual provisions. Id.

Ind. Port Comm'n v. Consol. Grain and Barge Co., 701 N.E.2d 882, 887 (Ind.Ct. App.1998), trans. denied.

Generally, one cannot be held liable for the negligent acts of another unless a master-servant relationship exists. Perryman v. Huber, Hunt & Nichols, Inc., 628 N.E.2d 1240, 1245 n. 10 (Ind.Ct.App. 1994), trans. denied. A duty of care, however, may arise contractually. Plan-Tec, Inc. v. Wiggins, 443 N.E.2d 1212, 1218 (Ind.Ct.App.1983). In determining whether a duty exists, we will give effect to the intent of the parties as reflected by the contract language, and if a contract affirmatively evinces an intent to assume a duty of care, actionable negligence may be predicated upon the contractual duty. Id.

Appellants point to the following lease provisions as imposing a duty of care on LRPN:

OCCUPANCY AND USE

[LRPN] shall use and occupy the premises for medical office purposes, and for no other purpose whatsoever unless permission is granted in writing by [the Hospital]. Any use of the Premise other than as permitted herein is not authorized and [LRPN]'s use of the Premises for any other purpose may invalidate any policies of insurance now or hereafter carried on the Building or may increase the rate of insurance on the Premises or on the Building. In such event, Tenant shall pay all extra insurance premiums which may be caused by any unauthorized use which [LRPN] shall make of the Premises. [LRPN] shall comply with all of the governmental, health, and fire requirements and regulations respecting the Premises and shall not conduct or permit to be conducted on the Premises any business which is contrary to the laws of the United States of America, or of the State of Indiana, or which is contrary to the ordinances of the City of La Porte, Indiana.

* * * *

COMPLIANCE WITH LAWS. [LRPN] shall comply with all applicable federal, state, and municipal laws, ordinances, and regulations and building rules, and shall not directly or indirectly make any use of the Premises which may be prohibited by any thereof of which shall be dangerous to person or property or shall increase the cost of insurance or require additional insurance coverage.

Appellant's App. pp. 141, 162.

Appellants first note that LRPN obligated itself to comply with all "governmental, health, and fire requirements and regulations respecting the Premises" and argue that it did not do so with respect to various federal and state regulations regarding safety equipment. Appellant's App. p. 141. In particular, Appellants point to regulations promulgated by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") and the Indiana State Department of Health ("ISDH") regarding workplace safety. The OSHA regulations in question, however, apply only to "employers," and there is no dispute that LRPN was not A.S.'s employer. See 29 U.S.C. § 654(a) (2002) ("Each employer ... shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees [and] shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this chapter.") (emphasis added).

Moreover, the applicable ISDH regulations apply only to "facility operators," and, contrary to Appellants' argument, we conclude that there is no designated evidence that LRPN operated the laboratory. See 410 IAC 1-4-6 (2002) (An individual or entity that is a facility operator shall comply with the following:.... Ensure that each covered individual whose professional, employment, training, or volunteer activities or duties are performed at or on behalf of the facility, is provided appropriate equipment and...

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