Physicians who report instances of suspected child abuse to authorities, as required by state law, have absolute immunity from civil liability, even if the report turns out to be false, a state appellate court ruled Tuesday.
The decision, the first court test of the 1980 Child Abuse Reporting Law, was applauded by children's services officials, who said it should remove any remaining hesitancy about reporting among medical professionals who fear they will be sued.
"This decision should strengthen doctors' reporting," said Carlos Sosa, who heads the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services' bureau of protective services.
Failures to Report Noted
But he noted that many doctors still fail to report child abuse "not because they are afraid of being sued but because they don't want to go to court to testify or because they've known the family a long time and feel awkward about it."
The decision by 2nd District Court of Appeal Judges Armand Arabian and Joan Dempsey Klein and Municipal Court Judge Gaye Weber Herrington (sitting by designation) stemmed from a malpractice lawsuit filed by the parents of a 10-year-old Ventura County girl against three physicians and Westlake Community Hospital.
The couple, Lawrence and Gail Storch, alleged that the doctors had acted negligently and without reasonable suspicion in reporting that their daughter may have been a victim of sexual abuse and that the family had suffered emotional distress as a result.
The report had been based on a vaginal examination and laboratory tests that indicated the presence of sperm. But after investigation by the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, the abuse case was closed in 1984, and the Storches sued. The trial court dismissed their suit, and Tuesday's ruling upheld that dismissal.
"The legislative scheme is designed to encourage the reporting of child abuse to the greatest extent possible to prevent further abuse," Arabian wrote in the decision. "Reporters are required to report child abuse promptly, and they are subject to criminal prosecution if they fail to report as required. Accordingly, absolute immunity from liability for all reports is consistent with that scheme."
State law mandates those who work with children to report suspected child abuse "immediately" to a child protective agency and assures that the reporting party cannot be held "civilly or criminally liable" for doing so. Others who make reports also have immunity, unless it can be proven that they knew the report to be false.
A 1984 amendment to the law provides that a person sued for filing such a report is entitled to payment of his attorney fees by the state.
In fact, failure to report suspected child abuse is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. And a Los Angeles physician who ignored signs of abuse in a 3-year-old patient was charged with her death in 1983. (He pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and was placed on probation and ordered to perform community service).
"The appellate court decision is significant," said attorney William F. Ritner, who represented Dr. Stanley R. Silverman, the gynecologist who reported the Storch child to authorities, after consultation with Drs. Joon G. Oh and Herbert Goldin at Westlake Community Hospital, all named as defendants in the Storches' suit.
"Had they found the opposite, the medical profession would have been between a rock and a hard place. If they don't report, they are subject to prosecution; if they do, they would have been subject to civil liability," Ritner said.
The attorney said he expects the case to go to the state Supreme Court. Attorneys for the Storches could not be reached for comment.