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Archive for the tag “personal”

Don’t Like An Award From Compulsory Arbitration? You Must Appeal

Can a party to a case where a judgment has been entered in compulsory arbitration have that judgment modified without appealing? This is the underlying question in the recent matter heard by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, captioned as Blucas v. Agiovlasitis, 2018 Pa.Super. 25.

In Blucas, tenants brought suit against their former landlord for the return of their security deposit. The landlord, of course, claimed the leasehold had damages for which he incurred expenses and he needed compensation/reimbursement from the tenants.

The case was tracked into compulsory arbitration pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 7361. After a hearing before a panel of arbitrators, a judgment was entered awarding the tenants $10,000 and the landlord $1,450, for a net award to the tenants of $8,550.

Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307 and established case law, the entry of an award following compulsory arbitration has the force and effect of a final judgment. The court contrasted an award flowing from compulsory arbitration with one following statutory or common law arbitration. Unlike an award from compulsory arbitration, a party must petition the trial court to confirm an award from statutory or common law arbitration 30 days or more following the date of the award. For an award from compulsory arbitration neither party must file a præcipe to enter judgment on the award.

In July 2016, an award and notice of the same was entered on the docket in this matter, and was final (unless appealed). A judgment on the award was entered in November 2016. Within less than two weeks following the entry of the judgment in Blucas, the landlord remitted a check to the tenants for the full amount of the judgment ($8,550). Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307, a party must file an appeal within 30 days from when the award and notice are entered on the docket in order to further litigate the matter. No appeal was ever filed. Instead of appealing, the tenants, in April 2017, filed a motion for costs and prejudgment interest (motion) requesting a recalculation of the award.

The court reviewed the various case, statutory, and procedural laws applicable to the instant matter, and unequivocally concluded that the sole remedy for an adverse or unsatisfactory compulsory arbitration award is an appeal within 30 days from the award and notice. The only exception to the above the court could discern is Pa.R.C.P. 1307(d), which provides for a means to “mold” a previously entered award for obvious errors, in either arithmetic or language, that do not go to the substance and/or merits of the award.

The tenants’ motion did not address basic errors in arithmetic and language but, rather, asked the trial court to award them additional damages in prejudgment interest and costs. Inexplicably, and without citing support, the trial court granted the tenants’ motion, which led to the landlord’s appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court, resulting in the decision, cited above, that is the subject of this article.

Superior Court noted that the motion did not comply with the law and procedure cited above.  The motion clearly is not an example of “molding.” More importantly, it was not filed within 30 days of the award.  The trial court was unclear as to precisely how it calculated the award and what the figures in the award exactly represented (e.g., interest and costs? security deposit? pet deposit? etc.). As a result, there is no way for Superior Court to even attempt to “mold” the award regarding prejudgment interest, even if it could. Consequently, as the tenants did not file an appeal of the compulsory arbitration award, the trial court was without authority to attempt to revisit the award with regard to prejudgment interest.

As always, it is absolutely critical for practitioners to be totally cognizant of the applicable deadlines and time periods mandated by law or procedure and act accordingly to ensure compliance with the same and opportunity to litigate a matter as fully as possible.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 19, 2018 and can be found here.

A Collection of Personal Injury Writings by James W. Cushing, Esquire

Over the course of my career, I have written extensively on a wide variety of personal injury legal principles.  These writings have been published in The Legal IntelligencerUpon Further Review, and The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer as well as posted onto my blog.  I have collected these articles and blog posts and have listed them below.  Thanks for reading!

Musings:

My Articles:

Fallout for Injuries Sustained by Contractor’s Employee

When construction is taking place on a piece of real estate, and an employee of the contractor doing the work is injured there, who bears the potential tort liability for the injury, the property owner, the general contractor, or both?  Luckily Pennsylvania law provides a way to discern how liability should be distributed if there is no existing contract between the contractor and property owner which addresses the liability question.

The basic legal principle is foundational, well established, and has manifold case support in Pennsylvania.  The standard of care present in such a case mirrors the standard of care a property owner has to an individual on the property owner’s land.  The standard of care a property owner has depends upon whether the individual on the property owner’s land is a trespasser, licensee, or invitee.  Under Pennsylvania law, the employee of a general contractor who is authorized to be on the property falls within the classification of business invitee, and therefore, the duty of care owed to a business invitee is the highest duty owed to any entrant upon the property.

Pennsylvania “case law sets forth the duty that a possessor of law owes to business invitees as follows:  A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, and only if, he (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.”  Chenot v. A.P. Green Services, Inc., et al., 2006 Pa.Super. 52, 63 (2006)  Therefore, a property owner is potentially liable for the injuries sustained by a contractor’s employee while on the property.

In addition, there is no doubt that a duty of care attaches to a contractor for the injuries sustained by its employees.  Suffice it to say, a contractor has a duty, for which it can be held liable if breached, for injuries sustained by its employees while they are engaged in working for the contractor at the property.  However, the duty of care applied to a contractor does not lessen or relieve the property owner of his/her/its duty of care over business invitees/visitors.  Despite a contractor’s duty of care, a property owner “must [still] protect an invitee not only against known dangers, but also against those which might be discovered with reasonable care.” The court in  Gutteridge v. A.P. Green Services Inc., A.W. et al., 804 A.2d 643, 657 (Pa. Super. 2002) stated that a property owner ‘“owes a duty to warn an unknowing contractor of existing dangerous conditions on the landowner’s premises where such conditions are known or discoverable to the owner.”’  Finally, it should also be noted that the property owner’s duty to warn remains regardless of whether a contractor ‘“exercises full control over the work and premises entrusted to him.’”  (See Gutteridge).

Based upon the above, it is abundantly clear that a property owner can be held liable for the injuries sustained by a contractor’s employee working at his property if he breaches the duty of care described above and does not fulfill his duty to warn.  Consequently, the highest standard of care that a property owner ought to maintain applies to an employee of a contractor at the property who is authorized to be working there.  Such an employee is a business invitee of the property owner.  Therefore, to that end, a property owner has a duty to protect such an employee from known dangers at the property and those which could be discovered with reasonable care.  The liability of the property owner is supplemental to, and/or in addition to, any liability the contractor may also have for his employee’s injuries.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on January 28, 2016 and can be found here.

Local Ice Rink Tries to Put Law Suits on Ice

My nephew recently had a birthday and, because he is an avid ice hockey player, he chose to celebrate it at a local ice rink.  Before I get to the meat of this post let me say that I had not ice skated in at least ten years before that party and I was seriously out of practice!  By the end of the party I felt I was back to some semblance of respectability, but my back, ankles, and knees are clearly not as young as they once were.

Anyway, the ice rink facility the party was held at is very large and well equipped for such a party.  The facility is so large that there are two ice rinks separated by a common area for eating and lacing up one’s skates.  Next to one of the rinks are a series of smaller rooms where people gather for the parties that are held.  As one may expect from a kid’s party, much pizza, cake, and Coca-Cola are consumed in these rooms.

Part of the party process requires anyone intending to participate in ice skating to receive a sticker which identifies him/her as a guest of a party.  The sticker is a white paper with the name of the party on a piece of wax paper.  The person who receives the sticker peels off the sticker from the wax paper and puts the sticker on his or her shirt as identification on the ice rink.

All seemed rather typical to me for such a party until I noticed something peculiar.  While I was enjoying a slice of pizza, one of the kids at the party peeled off his sticker from its wax paper backing and threw the wax paper onto the table in front of me.  I glanced down at the wax paper and noticed that it was covered with text.  Curiosity got the best of me, so I picked up the wax paper and read all of the text written on it, which read as follows:

WAIVER OF LIABILITY

ASSUMPTION OF RISK:

I am aware that ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities involve inherent risks dangers and hazards which can result in serious personal injury or death.  I am also aware that the ice skating rinks and arenas contain dangers that can cause serious injury or death.  I hereby freely agree to assume and accept all known and unknown risks of injury arising out of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities.  I recognize and acknowledge that risks of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball can be greatly reduced by: taking lessons, abiding by the Responsibility Code and using common sense.

RELEASE AND WAIVER OF CLAIMS AGREEMENT:

For allowing m e to participate in public skating, hockey and/or broomball activites at the [ice rink], I agree to the fullest extent permitted by law, as follows: 1) TO WAIVE ALL CLAIMS that I have or may have against the [ice rink] and its owners and affiliates, arising out of public skating, hockey and/or broomball.  2) TO RELEASE the [ice rink] and its owners and affiliates from all liability for any loss, damage, injury or expense that I (o my next of kin, parent, guardian estate) may suffer, arising out of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities from any cause whatsoever including negligence or breach of contract on the part of the [ice rink] in the operation, supervision, design or maintenance of its facility.

So, basically, on the back of the wax paper for the identification sticker was a rather detailed waiver which protects the ice rink from all liability for injuries sustained there.  When I saw this, I instantly knew I had to write a blog on it because this waiver seemed so ridiculous to me.

I find this waiver to be of dubious enforceability.  Waivers must be accepted knowingly.  The identification stickers are merely provided by the ice rink to the person in charge of the party who then distributes them to the people at the party.  No one at the ice rink indicated that a waiver of liability is written on the back of the stickers.  Furthermore, the waiver is written on what is ostensibly trash.  The people there had no idea that the back of the stickers had text on them, let alone something as vitally important as a waiver of liability.  Instead, the people at the party – as one may expect – simply peeled off the stickers from the wax paper and threw out the wax paper.  I would have never noticed it myself had the kid at my table not, by chance, tossed his trash in front of me.  In addition, the waiver of liability is received after the contract was formed and payment was made for the use of the ice rink.  So, no consideration was exchanged for the waiver.  A waiver cannot simply be thrust onto someone after the contract was formed and payment made.  Even if it could be argued that there was consideration for the waiver between the ice rink and the person who paid for the party, there was certainly no consideration between the ice rink and a guest of the party.

A waiver of this sort is basically an exculpatory clause.  When it comes to exculpatory clauses, they are to “be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection.” Phillips Home Furnishings v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa. Super. 174 (1974) citing Kotwasinksi v. Rasner, 436 Pa. 32 (1969). Furthermore, an exculpatory clause will not be valid if there is a disproportionate bargaining power between the parties to the contract at issue. Id. citing Hennigsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 161 A. 2d 69 (NJ, 1960).  In addition, an exculpatory clause that a Court is unwilling to enforce is where the terms of a contract are unwilling to be altered by its maker.  In other words, a contract where the other party (i.e.: not the drafter of the contract) “has no bargaining power and must accept [the] terms” presented to him and is “powerless to alter” them, with rejection of the contract as the only alternative to executing the contract.  There is no meeting of the minds in this sort of contract negotiation. Galligan v. Arovitch, 421 Pa. 301 (1966).  In addition to the relationship of the parties to a contract, the Court also analyzes whether a party to a contract were “aware of and understood the terms of the release before his agreement can be deemed a particularized expression of the intent to assume risk.” Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 933 A.2d 110 (Pa.Super., 2007) citing Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, 911 A.2d 946 (Pa.Super.2006).  Finally, “[i]n determining whether a releasing party had such awareness and understanding, we consider: 1) the release’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the release’s print; and, 3) whether the release is highlighted in some fashion.” Id.,citing Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1269 (Pa.Super.2006)

Based on the above, I think it is pretty clear that the language located on the back of the sticker is problematic. The contract relationship is obviously imbalanced.  A person seeking admission to the ice rink has no choice but to accept the exculpatory clause else he cannot gain access.  Further, the exculpatory clause is printed on what amounts to a piece of trash.  The guest cannot bargain and negotiate with the person at the ice rink’s office about the terms of the clause and try to change them.  In fact the person at the office likely has no authority at all to act on the ice rink’s behalf in order to change or alter the language on the sticker even if he wanted to do it.  So, obviously, there is a “take-it-or-leave-it” aspect to the sticker.  In terms of whether the recipient of the sticker was aware of and understood the terms of the exculpatory clause, I think even the average observer can see that there is likely no awareness of this clause, let along comprehension, at the time of entry into the rink.  Who reads what is basically trash?  No one gets the language mentioned or explained by the person at the ice rink’s office.  I would guess that the person at the office has likely never read it either or knows what it means.  What non-lawyer knows what an exculpatory clause is or how it works and how it could effect him?  Remember, this is all in the context of a busy kids’ party and being handed a sticker for one’s shirt amid the hustle and bustle at an ice rink.  Who is taking the time to read the wax paper on the back of a sticker, let alone understand the technical legal jargon on it?

I wrote a similar post to this one a couple of summers ago about my trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.  The Zoo tries to do similar things as this ice rink, which is to sneak in an exculpatory clause on the back of an admission ticket after the ticket is purchased which means, therefore, there is no opportunity to read it at the time of purchase.  You can read more about that clause here.

So, suffice it to say, I think the inclusion of the exculpatory clause on the back of the ice rink’s identification sticker is pretty sneaky.  I do not think the clause is particularly enforceable and is of questionable legitimacy in contractual terms.

Statute of Limitations When a Defendant Dies

One the most basic legal principles is that statutes of limitations establish the time frames in which a civil suit can be brought in a given case and any attempt to bring suit outside of that time frame will inevitably result in the case being dismissed. For example, the statute of limitations for a personal injury matter is two years from the date the injury is, or should be, discovered (see: 42 Pa.C.S.A. §5524(1), (2), and (3)) and, for the most part, bringing a personal injury matter beyond that two year deadline will be cause to dismiss the claim.

One of the possible exceptions to the application of statutes of limitations is if the defendant dies during the pendency of the limitations period. As with any complaint, it is the duty of a plaintiff “to use all reasonable diligence to properly inform himself of the facts and circumstances upon which the right of recovery is based and then institute suit within the prescribed period,” and that includes determining whether the defendant is living or dead at the time of suit. Lange v. Burd, 800 A2d 336 (Pa.Super. 2002).

Generally speaking, a dead person cannot be sued or be a party to an action Montanya v. McGonegal, 757 A.2d 947 (Pa.Super.2000); Lange v. Burd, 800 A2d 336 (Pa.Super. 2002). However, 20 Pa.C.S.A. §3383 carves out an exception to this general rule permitting a dead person to be sued within one year after his death. §3383 goes on to say that its terms ought not be construed to shorten a two year statute of limitations period. Therefore, hypothetically speaking based on the above, if someone died on the day a plaintiff discovered his injury, then the plaintiff would have two years to bring suit against the deceased. At the other end of the spectrum, if someone died on the last day of the two year statute of limitations, then the plaintiff would have an additional year to bring suit against that defendant (for a total of three years). Finally, if someone died during the statutory two year period, the last date a plaintiff could bring suit against the deceased could be either the last day of the two year statutory period or the last day of the one year period stated in §3383 above, whichever came later. Longo v. Longo v. Estep, 289 Pa.Super. 19 (1981); Rylee et ux. v. Nicoll’s Administrator, 74 Pa.D.&C. 269 (1950); Telford Coal Company v. Prothero et al., 24 Pa.D.&.C. 183 (1935).

After considering the above, the obvious question arises as to whether one can substitute another party (e.g.: an estate) for the deceased defendant in order to pursue a plaintiff’s claims. According to applicable case law, one may bring suit against a decedent’s estate in order to pursue claims that would have otherwise been against the decedent himself if he were alive. If a complaint is filed against a deceased person, it must be withdrawn and refiled against his estate instead. Montanya v. McGonegal, 757 A.2d 947 (Pa.Super.2000). The refiled complaint against the estate is subject to the same applicable statutes of limitations stated above for the decedent. See Montanya. The filing of a complaint against the deceased, instead of his estate, does not serve to toll the running of statutes of limitations described above in order to permit an action against the decedent’s estate after the expiration of statutes of limitations described above. See Lange.

The only way around the above statutes of limitations is to argue that there was some sort of fraud or intentional concealment of the death of the defendant which served to unfairly prejudice plaintiff in his attempt to bring suit. See Lange. The plaintiff does not have to prove that fraud or concealment was intentional, just simply that the opposing party’s conduct served to conceal the death of the defendant. See Montanya. When arguing that the opposing party committed fraud and/or concealed the death of the defendant, it should be noted that silence on the part of the opposing party is insufficient to constitute fraud or concealment. As a result, an insurance company or party failing to volunteer the information that the defendant is dead at any time – or even accepting service for the deceased at his residence – during the life of the claim and/or suit will not constitute fraud or concealment. See Montanya. The fraud or concealment must be the result of an affirmative action; consequently a passive action (e.g.: taking no action at all) is not an affirmative action. See Montanya. Moreover, the plaintiff has the burden of proving the fraud and/or concealment with clear and convincing evidence.

Although Pennsylvania law may provide a case with a little more life after the death of a defendant, ultimately statutes of limitations will apply to kill a case even if the death of a defendant did not do it already.

Originally published on June 24, 2014 in The Legal Intelligencer Blog and can be seen here.

Money for Injuries During Marriage Are Divisible After Marriage

The recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Focht v. Focht, 613 Pa. 48, has clarified Pennsylvania case law regarding the status of a court and/or litigation settlement and/or verdict in the context of equitable distribution in a divorce. The obvious question for divorce litigants is this: if one has a potential settlement/verdict, when, if at all, is it divisible in equitable distribution?

23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3501(a)(8) specifically states that a “cause of action or claim which accrued prior to the marriage or after the date of final separation” is not divisible in equitable distribution. The courts, in the cases of Drake v. Drake, 555 Pa. 481, and Pudlish v. Pudlish, 2002 PA Super 95, made attempts to address actions and claims during the marriage (before separation), with the question at issue being “when does an action or claim accrue exactly?”

In Drake, one of the spouses had a worker´s compensation claim which included an injury and litigation settlement for the same, occurring during the marriage. The issue for the Drake Court was to determine whether the spouse´s claim for lost future wages, which extended to a time period beyond the dissolution of the marriage, would be subject to equitable distribution. The Court ruled that as the injury and its settlement both occurred during the marriage, any funds to be paid out in that settlement were to be included in equitable distribution. In other words, the entire settlement was considered to have accrued during the marriage.

In Pudlish, the Court ruled that a claim or action does not accrue until a verdict and/or settlement is entered. Practically speaking, then, an injury and its entire litigation could take place during a marriage, but if the verdict/settlement just happened to take place after marital separation, it would be considered separate property not subject to equitable distribution.

With the Drake and Pudlish cases in full view, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Focht took the opportunity to clarify the issue of exactly when an action/claim accrues by laying out what is now the definitive rule in Pennsylvania. In Focht, the husband was injured during the marriage and brought an action for his injury which was not settled until after an action in divorce was filed.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended Drake, and specifically overruled Pudlish, by ruling that a settlement and/or verdict and/or any proceeds from litigation accrues under 23 Pa.C.S.A. 3501(a)(8) as soon as the party has the right to file suit. Therefore, if an injury (or similar legally actionable issue) occurs during the marriage, regardless of when it settles or reaches a verdict, any funds flowing from any said action will be subject to equitable distribution.

Originally published on April 3, 2013 in Upon Further Review and can be seen here.

The Grounds for the Famous McDonald’s Coffee Case

Most people have heard of the 1994 case of the old woman spilling McDonald’s coffee in her lap, being severely burned in the process, suing McDonald’s over it, and securing millions of dollars after a verdict in her favor.  My law school career began in 1999 and, I must say, when non-lawyers speak to me about the law, this McDonald’s coffee case, often to the exclusion of all the famous, important, and significant cases that the Courts have heard over the years, decades, and centuries, is routinely mentioned, especially as some sort of lament over the perceived abuse of the legal system, and using tort law as a substitute for playing the lottery.

There is just so much misconception over this case that any conversation about it becomes a sort of deconstruction of previously held misconceptions – generally thanks to the media and widespread public perception – more than it is about the legal significance of the case.

Before reading this post and/or watching the video below, did you know:
(1) the coffee was heated 30 degrees hotter than a home brewer can heat coffee?

(2) the woman burned was not driving and her car had no available cup holders?

(3) the woman did not make millions but only about $600,000, much of which went to pay her very large medical bills?

(4) the woman suffered third degree burns?

(5) McDonald’s was aware of the fact that literally hundreds of people had been similarly burned by their coffee over the 10 year period prior to the famous 1994 case and took no action to make their coffee safer?

Once all of the facts are known, it becomes clear that this case is far from being the poster child of the abuse of the legal process and is hardly an example of people looking to “frivolous” tort cases to become overnight millionaires.

For a great look at the details of this case – and some photographs of the burns themselves – check out this video posted on upworthy.com:

You can find it here as well: http://www.upworthy.com/ever-hear-about-the-lady-that-spilled-coffee-on-herself-at-mcdonalds-then-sued-for-millions?g=2&c=ufb1

Also, here is the wiki page for the case which includes the official caption and citation and other details which may be interesting:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stella_Liebeck

The Discoverability of Psychiatric Records

The issue of the discoverability of one’s health records took center stage in the matter of Gormley v. Edgar, 2010 PA Super 71, a recent case heard by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. The discovery process is designed to facilitate the exchange of information between the parties to litigation. Generally speaking, the standard of what can be requested and required to be revealed in discovery by a party is rather liberal. However, when psychiatric records are the subject of the discovery requests, there are significant limitations as to what a party can request.

There are two competing interests at work when requesting psychiatric records. The first interest is the party’s interest in the privacy of his psychiatric records. The second interest is the ability for an adverse party to adequately defend himself and, in the interest of fairness and equity, be able to secure sufficient documentation for that defense. These two interests come into conflict, obviously, when the documentation sought by one party consists of the documents the other believes to contain private information that he has a right to protect.

The right to the privacy of one’s psychological records has been codified as 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5944. The text of Section 5944 is as follows: “No psychiatrist or person who has been licensed under the act of March 23, 1972 (P.L. 136, No. 52), to practice psychology shall be, without the written consent of his client, examined in any civil or criminal matter as to any information acquired in the course of his professional services on behalf of such client. The confidential relations and communications between a psychologist or psychiatrist and his client shall be on the same basis as those provided or prescribed by law between an attorney and client.”

It is interesting to note that when 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5944 was passed in 1976, it only made reference to psychologists and their records, and not psychiatrists and their records. Therefore, perhaps counter-intuitively, the Court drew a distinction between psychological records and psychiatric records. The Court has ruled that as the statute specifically refers to psychologists, and could have easily included psychiatrists, the legislature clearly intended to exclude psychiatrists and other sorts of mental health counselors from the privacy guaranteed by Section 5944 (see Miller v. Colonial Refrigerated Transportation Incorporated, 81 F.R.D. 741 (1979). However, in 1989 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5944 was revised to include psychiatric records.

The privacy guaranteed by Section 5944 is reinforced by the discovery standards set by Pa.R.C.P. 4003.6 which follows: “[i]nformation may be obtained from the treating physician of a party only upon written consent of that party or through a method of discovery authorized by this chapter. This rule shall not prevent an attorney from obtaining information from: (1) the attorney’s client; (2) an employee of the attorney’s client, or (3) an ostensible employee of the attorney’s client.” Therefore, on the strength of these two statutes and the cases decided thereunder, there is, at least in general, a guarantee of privacy for one’s own psychological and medical records. Obviously, one could argue that the treatment provided by a psychiatrist or other mental health professional is, at least in spirit, “medical” treatment inasmuch as someone seeks the help for healing of some sort.

Despite the guarantees above, and unfortunately for a party attempting to suppress the records describe above, the Court has made it clear that the privacy of such records is not absolute in certain circumstances. One of those circumstances is when a party raises psychological injuries as damages in a case. If a party raises psychological issues, the Court has effectively ruled that doing so functions as a waiver of the party’s privacy over one’s psychological records. To put it simply, a party “waive[s] her statutory privilege by filing [a] lawsuit and claiming psychological damages.” Helper v. Alvis, 63 Pa.D.&C.4th 129 (2003) and Premack v. J.C.J. Ogar, Inc., 148 F.R.D. 140 (E.D.Pa. 1993). Therefore, “in order to pursue psychological damages, the plaintiff must accede to discovery with respect to mental-health care providers with whom he or she has consulted.” Loftus v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 12 Pa.D.&C.4th 357 (1991). If the party continues to refuse to produce the records, it will be at the pain of dismissal of any and all claims for psychological injuries. Id.

The raising of a mental health condition as damages flowing from an accident was the issue raised in Gormley v. Edgar. The Plaintiff in the aforesaid matter alleged she suffered from anxiety as a result of an accident she claimed was caused by the Defendant. The Court ruled that by so doing she placed her mental health condition directly at issue, rendering her mental health records, at least in part, discoverable. The Court also ruled that if one alleges the aggravation of a pre-existing mental health condition, records of prior treatment for the same are also discoverable. Similarly, the Court finally ruled that mental health records predating the accident at issue are also potentially discoverable as a defendant may wish to prove that the mental health condition alleged pre-existed whatever a plaintiff alleges is its cause. Again, as stated above, these records only become discoverable when a party raises his mental health as an issue in the case.

Although, in general, a party must reveal his psychological records if one raises psychological injuries, the waiver described above is not completely unfettered. The Court recognizes that psychological records are extremely sensitive and the discovery process could inappropriately reveal irrelevant psychological issues of some sort. The Court has made at least three different options available in an effort to adequately, though perhaps imperfectly, balance the two conflicting interests at work in given a matter. The three options are as follows: (1) have formal discovery in the presence of counsel which would afford counsel the opportunity to object on the basis of relevance and other appropriate reasons. Marek et al. v. Keyer, M.D., et al., 733 A.2d 1268 (Pa.Super.1999). Presumably, a deposition of the psychologist(s) would be scheduled, who would be instructed to bring his file regarding a client with him to the deposition. Over the course of the questioning, the records would be produced as appropriate and the attorney would object as appropriate; (2) request the Court to conduct an in camera inspection of the records and if the records do not reveal the information one believes it does, the records will remain protected by Section 5944. Commonwealth v. Kyle, 367 Pa.Super. 4848 (1987); and (3) request the Court to order its own psychological evaluation under Pa.R.C.P. 4010(a)(3). Of course, this remedy would implicitly require the client to permit his records to be reviewed by the independent psychologist and would, presumably, have to respect the conclusions reached in the Court ordered psychological report. Obviously, more than either of the above options, this option carries with it the greatest risk of any undesirable information being revealed and used against the client.

In the final analysis, it appears that a party cannot be forced to reveal his psychological records to an opposing party. However, if he wishes to proceed with claims alleging psychological damages, that party may not attempt to suppress them. Instead, the opposing party has a right to see those records so that he may have a fair and equitable opportunity to raise a proper defense the claims leveled against him. The client has the options of withdrawing the psychological claims or moving forward and allowing the records to be revealed to the opposing party. If the client elects to move forward, he may have one or more of the three options above to mitigate the loss of privacy and successfully suppress, at least in part, his psychological records.

Originally published in Upon Further Review on June 8, 2010 and can be seen here and on my website here.

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