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Child Abuse Case: Does Medical Testing Violate 4th Amendment?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 15, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019
Luke Burley was 19 days old when his father took him to the emergency department.

The baby's head was swelling from multiple skull fractures. He must have been injured when he rolled off the sofa and fell on the carpet ten days earlier, the parents said.

After doctors treated the infant and reported possible child abuse, the father and other parents sued in Thomas v. Nationwide Children's Hospital. What is wrong with these people?

Suspicious Injuries

A trial judge granted summary judgment against Burley and the parents of other injured infants who went to Nationwide Children's Hospital for emergency care. The Columbus-based hospital ranks as one of the best pediatric hospitals in the country.

In Burley's case, county investigators substantiated the doctors' suspicions. The doctors reported the other cases, too, but child abuse was less clear.

Evan Thomas came to the hospital with a fractured femur. His mother explained she heard a "pop" when she bent over with the three-month-old strapped to her chest in an infant carrier.

Six-month-old Gabriella Rose had a skull fracture when her mother took her to the hospital. The child fell off the kitchen table while in a baby seat, the mother said.

Consented to Treatment

The parents had sued for civil rights violations, saying the doctors violated the children's Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches by conducting medical tests. But the trial judge dismissed the claims.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Among other problems with their case, the appeals court said, the parents consented to the tests.

"The parents did not object to any of the procedures as medical personnel administered them," the judges said. "On this record, any doctor would have good reason to think the parents consented to the tests."

The judges seemed puzzled that the parents sued at all. They wondered whether the parents realized the doctors had a duty to report suspected child abuse.

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