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Personal Injury Litigant Should Have Been Allowed to Depose Assailant’s Psychiatric Providers, Says Appellate Tribunal in New York

Syracuse personal injury cases have many steps. Once an attorney has been contacted and an investigation has been made into the facts of the event giving rise to the litigation, the next step is to file a formal complaint in a court of law. After that, the case proceeds to the discovery phase.

Just as the name suggests, the discovery phase of litigation is the time during which each side is allowed an opportunity to learn more about his or her opponent’s case. Of course, there are limitations on the scope of such discovery, and disputes can arise regarding whether one party or the other has stepped over the line of what is acceptable.

The trial court controls the discovery phase of litigation, ruling upon the various motions of the litigants as the matter progresses. When a ruling is unfavorable, the affected party may be able to have the matter reviewed by a higher court (although, in some situations, the matter cannot be appealed until after the case has proceeded to a later phase of litigation, such as trial or disposition by summary judgment).

Facts of the Case

In a recent appellate case, the plaintiff was a nurse who filed a lawsuit seeking to recover money damages for personal injuries which allegedly occurred after he was assaulted by a patient being treated by the defendant psychiatrists at a Suffolk County psychiatric facility. A dispute arose during discovery, and the plaintiff filed a motion pursuant to N.Y.C.P.L.R. 3124, seeking to compel the defendants to appear for depositions and answer questions concerning the patient (who was not a party to the action). According to the plaintiff’s motion, he only sought to discover information that was not covered by the doctor-patient privilege. The defendants filed a cross motion pursuant to N.Y.C.P.L.R. 3103(a), seeking a protective order precluding them from answering any questions regarding the patient.

The Supreme Court of Suffolk County denied the plaintiff’s motion to compel and granted the defendants’ motion for a protective order. The plaintiff appealed.

How the Issues Were Resolved

The New York Appellate Division, Second Department reversed the lower court’s ruling denying the plaintiff’s motion and granting the defendants’. The court began by acknowledging that, generally speaking, there should be full disclosure of all information and materials necessary to the prosecution and/or defense of a civil action. However, there are certain limitations on discovery, including non-disclosure of information that is considered privileged. Unless waived by the patient, most communication between a doctor (or, as here, a psychiatrist) and his or her patient, falls within the category of privileged, nondiscoverable information.

As the court stressed, however, not all information pertaining to the defendants’ treatment of the patient who allegedly assaulted the plaintiff necessarily fell into the category of privileged and, hence, not subject to discovery. Although the reviewing court was not privy to the particular content of the information sought by the plaintiff because the parties’ respective motions were made prior to the taking of depositions of the defendants, the court opined that the plaintiff was entitled to inquire into “any nonprivileged information regarding the patient.”

In so holding, the court noted that the proper procedure to be followed in cases involving issue of the discoverability of allegedly privileged information was for the witness to appear at the deposition, and the inquiring party to ask his or her questions on the record during the deposition. Thereafter, counsel could interpose objections to any particular questions that called for the disclosure of arguably privileged information, and those questions could be addressed by the trial court on a case-by-case basis.

To Talk to a Syracuse Attorney About Your Personal Injury Case

At DeFrancisco & Falgiatano, LLP, our attorneys are here to help Syracuse, Rochester, and other up-state residents with many different types of personal injury cases, including car accidents, construction accidents, medical malpractice, and wrongful death actions. For a free consultation, you can contact us through this website or by dialing 315-479-9000. We do not charge a retainer in personal injury cases; rather, we collect our fee as a percentage of the settlement or judgment, once the case is over.

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