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A.A. v. Shutts

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

February 17, 2017



          BRIEF FOR APPELLANTS: Joe F. Childers Lexington, Kentucky Stephen G. Amato Lexington, Kentucky

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Christopher P. O'Bryan Whitney R. Kramer Louisville, Kentucky



          CLAYTON, JUDGE

         Multiple minors were placed in the foster care of their aunt and uncle. One of the minors, Watson Adkins, was abused and murdered by the same uncle. The Appellants herein are Watson's estate and the surviving minors, by and through their mother, their next friend and administrator, Rhonda Lewis. They will be referred to collectively as the Adkins Estate. The Appellee herein, Dr. Kristy Shutts, treated Watson prior to his death and was sued by the Adkins Estate for failing to report his abuse to the proper authorities pursuant to Kentucky Revised Statutes ("KRS") 620.030. Dr. Shutts moved for summary judgment raising multiple grounds. The trial court considered some of the grounds and granted Dr. Shutts's motion for immunity from suit pursuant to KRS 620.050(1), finding that she neither acted in bad faith nor intentionally failed to report the abuse. The trial court also found "there was no reasonable cause for the doctor to suspect abuse[, ]" thus "the requirements of KRS 620 to report said abuse did not apply."

         Though there were other issues put before the trial court in the motion, the trial court expressly reserved those issues in the event the order granting immunity was reversed and remanded on appeal. The Adkins Estate now appeals.


         In February of 2011, Watson and his three siblings were placed in the foster care of their aunt and uncle because their mother was dealing with drug-related issues. The placement proved disastrous, as Watson died from blunt-force injuries inflicted by his uncle on September 29, 2011. He was nearly three-years old.

         Dr. Shutts's involvement began in February of 2011, shortly after the children were first placed in their foster home, when Dr. Shutts conducted the children's physical examinations. Her next involvement with Watson was in May of 2011. There, the children's mother had filed a report with social services alleging that the children were being abused by the aunt and uncle. Social services investigated, and both the aunt and uncle denied any abuse. Social services directed that the aunt take Watson to Dr. Shutts.

         At the May 12, 2011 visit, the aunt informed Dr. Shutts about the purpose of the visit and the abuse allegations made by the mother. The aunt stated that Watson had fallen on a vent in the living room and injured himself. Watson's condition at the appointment - faint bruising on his forehead and two small scabs - was consistent with the aunt's explanation. Other than a failed hearing test and some difficulties with expressive language, the medical records show that Watson's physical condition was unremarkable.

         Social services workers contacted Dr. Shutts about the appointment and received a copy of the medical exam. They also investigated all injuries that the other children had incurred in the months leading up to the complaint. All injuries were alleged by the aunt and uncle to have accidentally occurred by playing with toys and falling down. A detailed, ten-page report was created by social services. It concluded, "No maltreatment was found and the finding is unsubstantiated on Gladys and Jason Dickerson [the aunt and uncle] based on interviews with the alleged victims, perpetrators and collaterals as well as hard copy documentation including medication records." Dr. Shutts stated that she was advised by social services that they had investigated and determined there was no evidence of child abuse.

         Watson was next seen at Dr. Shutts's office on June 16, 2011. Dr. Shutts's physician's assistant performed the medical examination and write-up, which Dr. Shutts later reviewed. Watson was having episodes of diarrhea and occasional abdominal pain. The aunt was advised to limit Watson's sugary drink intake and monitor his symptoms. She was to return to the clinic if the symptoms worsened or did not resolve or if new symptoms emerged.

         Dr. Shutts's office would not see Watson again for more than two months. On September 23, 2011, the aunt took one of Watson's siblings in for a scheduled wellness visit. She also brought along Watson. At the visit, the aunt asked Dr. Shutts to examine a cut on Watson's head. The aunt informed Dr. Shutts that Watson's uncle told her that Watson had fallen in a bathtub. The uncle informed the aunt that he had taken Watson to an emergency room, which had applied New-Skin, a glue-like substance, to the cut. The aunt did not know what emergency room they had visited. Dr. Shutts checked with Highlands Regional Medical Center, which had no record of a visit. Dr. Shutts did not believe Highlands ER used New-Skin for such cuts. Moreover, the substance appeared to be more akin to super glue than New-Skin. There are other emergency rooms in Floyd County, though, and some physicians would use the glue-like substance to close a wound, so Dr. Shutts asked Watson's aunt to bring back Watson the next week along with the ER records. Dr. Shutts stated the wound was small, about an inch or less in size, and appeared to be healing. Dr. Shutts was not suspicious that abuse was occurring due to the small wound. Children routinely fall and injure themselves, and she believed the explanation the aunt gave was plausible.

         Watson died approximately a week later, before he ever returned to Dr. Shutts for his follow-up visit. His uncle, who was later convicted of murder and first-degree criminal abuse of a child under the age of 12, would "punish" Watson by making him walk around the couch with his hands up while the uncle would punch Watson in the stomach. Though Watson had injuries to other parts of his body, Watson died of multiple blunt-force injuries to his abdomen. As the medical examiner explained at the uncle's trial:

But basically, why he died was because of his injuries to his abdomen. He bled into his abdomen and also the injuries to the bowel can just cause a person just to go into shock and die over time.
. . .
Basically, the cause of death is a hemoperitoneum. That means a bleed into the abdomen due to, you know, due to - due to blunt force injuries to the head, trunk, and extremities with lacerations and ...

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