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9th Circuit rules against parents in spinal tap case

BOISE - The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled against a Boise couple who sued after their 5-week-old baby was seized from her mother’s custody at a hospital emergency room and given a spinal tap and antibiotics without her parents’ consent.

Doctors feared meningitis, a rare but very serious risk to the baby, though the infant turned out just to have a cold. The appeals court ruled that case law at the time, in 2002, did not require that imminent danger be “likely” in order for a baby to be declared in imminent danger. They noted that a later case, in 2007, may impose such a requirement, but that was long after the 2002 incident.

“At best, this case involves a series of nighttime emergency room judgments and decisions made under pressure about which people might differ,” wrote Judge Stephen Trott in the unanimous decision. “At the end of the day, however, a jury of their peers decided on the basis of a full and fair airing of their evidence that the Muellers had not proved their case.”

Corissa Mueller brought her infant daughter, Taige, to the St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center emergency room in 2002 with a low-grade fever. After the treatment was administered, the Muellers had to hire a lawyer to regain custody of their child, which they got back about 36 hours later after going to court. A jury ruled against the Muellers in 2010 after five days of deliberations.

The appeals court held that city police officers were entitled to qualified immunity from damages for their actions in the case; that a police detective was “in no position to second-guess” the doctors; and that Corissa Mueller’s constitutional rights weren’t violated when she was held in a small room while her baby was treated. It also upheld several other aspects of the decision, including rejecting a challenge to the jury instructions and ruling that an expert’s testimony was proper.

The ruling came after a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit held a special sitting in Boise in July - for the first time since 2003 - to hear arguments in the appeal.

“Society has seen fit to qualify parental rights in certain circumstances in favor of the life and liberty rights of a child,” Trott wrote. He wrote that doctors in the case “exercised … best judgment in an emergency setting in favor of ensuring an infant’s safety.”

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