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Halper v. Jewish Family & Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia

February 19, 2009

JACK HALPER AND MARLENE HALPER, H/W, AND DAVID HALPER, APPELLANTS
v.
JEWISH FAMILY & CHILDREN'S SERVICE OF GREATER PHILADELPHIA, APPELLEES
JACK HALPER AND MARLENE HALPER, H/W, AND DAVID HALPER, APPELLANTS
v.
JEWISH FAMILY & CHILDREN'S SERVICE OF GREATER PHILADELPHIA, APPELLEES



Appeal from the Judgment of Superior Court entered on 09/06/2005 at Nos. 2476 EDA 2004, 2517 EDA 2004 (reargument denied on 11/15/2005) reversing and remanding the Judgment entered on 08/18/2004 in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County Civil Division at No. 2046 February Term 2001.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Eakin

CAPPY, C.J., CASTILLE, SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, BALDWIN, FITZGERALD, JJ.

ARGUED: October 15, 2007

OPINION

Jack and Marlene Halper adopted their son, David, in 1964 through Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia. David's life has been riddled with mental health problems, treatment, suicide attempts, continuous drug abuse, and poor social relationships. In 1979, David was hospitalized for depression, drug dependence, and adolescent adjustment reaction following a suicide attempt. From 1980 through 1999, the Halpers and David sought his birth mother's medical records to facilitate treatment and insight into David's problems.

The Agency had a file on David's birth mother, which included a psychiatrist's letter indicating she suffered from undifferentiated schizophrenia. That letter was not in David's file; apparently it had been placed in the file of David's younger sibling, who was also placed for adoption through the Agency. It was not produced for the plaintiffs until 1999.

The Halpers*fn1 brought an action against the Agency alleging two theories of negligence. First, the Halpers alleged "wrongful adoption," i.e., the Agency improperly failed to notify them of David's birth mother's mental history. Second, the Halpers asserted the Agency negligently misfiled the birth mother's medical information, so that when they later sought such information, it was not available; as a result, David did not receive the psychiatric care he might have otherwise received. David brought his own action, which mirrored the claims in the Halpers' second "failure to disclose" theory.

The jury returned a general verdict finding the Agency negligent; the jury was not asked to differentiate between the "wrongful adoption" and "failure to disclose" theories. The jury awarded the Halpers $225,000 and David $75,000. The Halpers and the Agency appealed.

On appeal, the Superior Court found the verdict "too muddled to be legally supported." Halper v. Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia, No. 2476 EDA 2004 and No. 2517 EDA 2004, unpublished memorandum at 4 (Pa. Super. filed September 6, 2005). It found the Halpers presented conflicting expert testimony regarding whether David was properly diagnosed as schizophrenic, or major depressive with psychotic features. Id., at 5-6. However, relying on Brannan v. Lankenau Hospital, 417 A.2d 196 (Pa. 1980), the Superior Court embraced the Agency's argument that at the time of the adoption, schizophrenia was believed to be a reactive disorder of the mind, not as an inherited or foreseeable condition; thus, it would not have been negligent to have kept that information from the Halpers. Id., at 6-7 (citing Gibbs v. Ernst, 647 A.2d 882, 891 (Pa. 1994)). As the verdict sheet did not differentiate between the two theories of negligence offered, the verdict was problematic because David was only able to recover under the second theory of liability, negligent failure to disclose, as opposed to negligent misrepresentation. Therefore, the Superior Court reversed the judgment and remanded for a new trial concerning David's claim, limited to the issue of negligent failure to disclose, i.e., the misfiling of David's birth mother's medical information and the resulting damages. Id., at 8. The court noted all other claims raised were relevant to the issue of wrongful adoption and were rendered moot. Id., at 10. For reasons unstated, the remand was limited to David's claim alone.

Justice Montemuro dissented, finding the expert testimony was not so contradictory that the jury was left with no guidance regarding the nature of David's mental illness. Halper v. Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia, No. 2476 EDA 2004 and No. 2517 EDA 2004, unpublished memorandum at 2 (Pa. Super. filed September 6, 2005) (Montemuro, J., dissenting). The dissent stated the testimony can be reconciled as there are two complimentary explanations for the variant diagnoses. First, the ingestion of medication could affect diagnoses, and second, David was difficult to diagnose because many major psychiatric disorders are "co-morbid," disorders that occur together. Id., at 2-3. Furthermore, Justice Montemuro opined that under Gibbs, failure to disclose applies in the adoption context; thus, the Halpers were under no obligation to show it was foreseeable that David's birth mother's mental health problems might negatively impact David in order to establish the Agency had a duty to disclose information regarding her mental illness. Id., at 3-4. The Halpers and David appealed.

We granted allowance of appeal to determine:

1. Whether the Superior Court erred in its interpretation and application of Gibbs v. Ernst, 647 A.2d 882 (Pa. 1994) in this appeal.

2. Whether the Superior Court erred in its interpretation and application of Brannan v. Lankenau Hospital, 417 A.2d 196 (Pa. 1980) in this appeal.

3. Whether the Superior Court erred in failing to remand Jack and Marlene Halper's claim for failure to timely produce the medical history of the ...


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