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Pennsylvania Superior Court Reverses Ruling Requiring Alleged At-Fault Physician to Disclose His Alcohol Treatment Records

In all Pennsylvania personal injury suits, the allegedly at-fault party must owe a duty to the injured person.  If the defendant fails to uphold his or her duty under the law, and an injury results because of the failure, the injured person can receive compensation for the expenses incurred, which include lost wages and medical bills.  If the behavior that led to the accident was particularly egregious, there is the possibility that punitive damages may also be available.  Even if a claim is filed and a civil action started, investigations for personal injury actions are on-going, which may lead to the discovery of other avenues of legal relief or reveal additional damages the injured person may be entitled to receive. 

At-Fault Cases

In Gallo v. Conemaugh Health System, Inc. (2015 PA Super 85), a gentleman sought treatment for a toe that was blackened and odorous.  The patient had previously seen a doctor for the toe and was scheduled for an amputation, but he arrived at the emergency room to see if he could have it amputated earlier.  The original treating physician was not available, so another doctor assumed care and scheduled the amputation the next day.  A separate doctor performed the anesthesia consult and ultimately administered the anesthesia, but he failed to perform a physical examination, cardiac evaluation, pulmonary assessment, chest x-ray, or electrocardiogram test in his pre-surgical evaluation, despite the patient’s medical history of having cardiac and pulmonary medical conditions.  The man died either during surgery or immediately after the amputation from a heart attack. 

The administratrix of the patient’s estate filed a wrongful death and survival action against the hospital, the physician’s group, and the individual doctors involved in the man’s surgery.  The administratrix alleged that the anesthesiologist, who had previously obtained eight DUIs from several states and lost his medical license in another state, was impaired by alcohol.  During the initial phases of litigation, the administratrix filed a Motion to Compel specific responses to questions regarding his alcohol treatment.  The trial judge allowed the request to compel, reasoning that the doctor had waived his privilege by denying the allegations of impairment as a result of alcohol use.  The doctor appealed, countering that he was not required to disclose that information under federal and Pennsylvania law.

The Superior Court looked at the statutes that shield those who seek treatment.  The court looked at the intent behind the law, which acknowledges that the privilege afforded by those who seek treatment can be waived, but it focuses on the distinct advantage of encouraging people to seek treatment and feel comfortable their recovery can be kept confidential.  The court ultimately ruled that the doctor did not waive his privilege by responding to questions, and it stated that the waiver is specific to the litigation.  Even though the doctor had revealed information regarding his alcohol abuse in the past, he had not waived his right to keep other records confidential in this action.  The Superior Court also upheld that the doctor is protected by the Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol Abuse Control Act, which does not have an exception like its federal counterpart, which allows a plaintiff to bypass the privilege upon a showing of “good cause.”  The Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court and remanded the case to the lower court system, where the civil action could continue.

This case sheds light on the intricacies of litigation, and how knowledge of the law can assist in the pursuit of additional damages.  The Pennsylvania wrongful death attorneys of Needle Law Firm have the experience you need to maximize the damages you deserve.  For a free, confidential consultation, contact us at 570-344-1266.

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