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PA Superior Court Rules Pre-Accident Mental Health Records are Discoverable

In an April 26, 2010 opinion authored by the Honorable Mary Jane Bowes on behalf of a three-judge panel, the Pennsylvania Superior Court unanimously ruled that pre-accident mental health records are discoverable when plaintiffs claim they have suffered anxiety as a result of the accident.

In Gormley v. Edgar, 2010 Pa Super 71 (April 26, 2010), Plaintiff commenced a personal injury action against Defendant to recover for injuries she sustained as a result of a motor vehicle accident in Philadelphia. At arbitration, an award was entered in favor of Plaintiff, but Defendant appealed to the court of common pleas for a trial de novo. During the course of pre-trial discovery, Defendant sought, among other things, the production of Plaintiff's medical records. Because Plaintiff refused to produce pre-accident emergency records, Defendant moved to compel special consent for release. At the hearing on the motion, the discovery court conducted an in camera examination of the records at issue and granted Defendant's motion. Plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court arguing that the trial court erred and abused its discretion in allowing the disclosure of her mental health records because they were privileged and irrelevant to her claim.

More specifically, Plaintiff argued that the records were protected from disclosure by the Mental Health Procedures Act, the Mental Health and Retardation Act of 1966, the Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol Act, and the statutory psychiatrist-psychologist/patient-client privilege.

However, the Superior Court held that the Mental Health Procedures Act, the Mental Health and Retardation Act of 1966, and the Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol Act did not apply. According to the Superior Court, because the treatment at issue "was voluntary and provided on an outpatient basis," it did not fall within the provisions of the Mental Health Procedures Act which "establishes rights and procedures for all involuntary treatment of mentally ill person, whether inpatient or outpatient, and for all voluntary inpatient treatment of mentally ill persons." Also according to the Court, the protections afforded by the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act were not available to Plaintiff because she was not "admitted, committed, or detained" as required by the Act. And because drugs and alcohol were not at issue, the provisions of the Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol Abuse Control Act did not protect Plaintiff's mental health records.

The Superior Court did, however, agree that the statutory psychiatrist-psychologist/patient-client privilege protected her mental health records from disclosure, but further held that Plaintiff waived that privilege by putting her mental health at issue.

Although Plaintiff argued that her mental health was not at issue, in her complaint, she averred that as a result of Defendant's negligence, she was caused to suffer, among other things, "great loss, frustration and anxiety." She further refused to withdraw such allegations. After reviewing medical literature, the Superior Court found that anxiety is "a recognized mental condition," and thus held that Plaintiff put her mental health at issue.

In further support of its decision requiring disclosure of the pre-accident mental health records, the Superior Court opined that, "It would clearly be unfair for a party to seek recovery for anxiety if that mental health issue predated the accident. Moreover, where a party seeks for recovery for aggravation of a pre-existing mental health condition, records of prior treatment for that condition are discoverable."

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