Superior Court of Pennsylvania: Discoverability of Health Records in Emotional Harm Injury Cases
In Boyle v. Main Line Health, Inc., 2022 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 71 (Jan. 10, 2022) (non-precedential decision) and Tavella Zirilli v. Ratner Companies, L.C., 2021 Pa. Super. 240 (Dec. 8, 2021), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania passed its judgment related to a personal injury lawsuit containing allegations of emotional harm. The court said that it is insufficient to waive the statutory psychiatrist/psychologist-patient privilege or the protections of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act, which preclude the disclosure of certain kinds of mental health records. The crucial point in both cases was: does the initiation of a personal injury lawsuit where emotional injuries are an alleged component of the harm suffered automatically waive the protections of the psychiatrist/psychologist-patient privilege and/or the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act and permit defendants in those cases to obtain unfettered access to the plaintiff’s mental health records?
In both cases, the court highlighted the kinds of allegations that would be satisfactory to waive the psychiatrist/psychologist-patient privilege. The court also cleared that the allegations related to emotional and mental pain and suffering do not always put a plaintiff’s mental health at issue to constitute waiver of the psychiatrist/psychologist-patient privilege. Firstly, in Boyle’s, the court suggested that an independent claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress would be sufficient to waive the privilege but a claim for loss of consortium would not. The court also distinguished between cases where a plaintiff claims anxiety during a discrete incident and where the defendant’s negligent act caused a mental health disorder like anxiety to the plaintiff.
However, the court’s prior decision taken in Tavella-Zirilli, gave a compromised solution to allow the discovery of the plaintiff’s mental health records, which contained information regarding the emotional manifestations of her physical injuries, while requiring the redaction of any actual communications between the plaintiff and her psychologist pursuant to the psychiatrist/psychologist-patient privilege.
Numerous defense attorneys make the mistake of assuming that once a plaintiff files a personal injury claim, any and all medical documents of any kind become discoverable. Similarly, many plaintiffs’ lawyers are unaware of the extent to which charges of emotional harm can jeopardize their confidential mental health records, making them discoverable in their case. Consequently, regardless of the nature of the plaintiff’s claims or the allegations in the complaint, the defense attorneys should carefully develop the underlying factual record in order to show that a prior mental health condition contributed to the development of the alleged physical injuries, harmed the plaintiff’s ability to work, or harmed the plaintiff’s relationship with family members. Defense attorneys will be in the greatest position to get potentially useful information from a plaintiff’s mental health records if they have a well-established factual record.
Research and Writing By: Team Draft n Craft
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