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Octave v. Walker

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

October 30, 2014

SUSAN OCTAVE ON BEHALF OF JAMES OCTAVE, AN INCAPACITATED PERSON, AND SUSAN OCTAVE, Appellants
v.
DAVID WADE WALKER, AND COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Appellees; SUSAN OCTAVE ON BEHALF OF JAMES OCTAVE, AN INCAPACITATED PERSON, AND SUSAN OCTAVE, Appellants
v.
DAVID WADE WALKER, AND COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Appellees

Argued October 15, 2013

Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered December 30, 2011 at No. 532 CD 2011, reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County entered February 28, 2011 at No. 4128 of 2009 and remanding. Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered December 30, 2011 at No. 540 CD 2011, reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County entered February 28, 2011 at No. 4128 of 2009 and remanding. Trial Court Judge: Anthony G. Marsili, Judge. Intermediate Court Judges: Bernard L. McGinley, Judge, Renee Cohn Jubelirer, Judge, James R. Kelley, Senior Judge.

For Susan Octave, James Octave, APPELLANTS: David Albert Colecchia, Esq., Law Care.

For David Wade Walker, APPELLEE: Jeanette Hsin Ho, Esq., Pietragallo, Gordon, Alfano, Bosick & Raspanti, L.L.P.

For Department of Transportation, APPELLEE: Kemal A. Mericli, Esq., PA Office of Attorney General.

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ. MR. JUSTICE EAKIN. Former Justice McCaffery did not participate in the decision of this case. Mr. Chief Justice Castille and Messrs. Justice Baer and Stevens join the opinion. Mr. Justice Saylor files a dissenting opinion. Madame Justice Todd files a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

Page 1256

MR. EAKIN, JUSTICE

In this appeal, we are asked to consider whether appellants waived the mental health records privilege provided under the Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA), 50 P.S. § 7111,[1] by filing a negligence suit to recover for physical injuries sustained by James Octave upon being struck by a tractor-trailer driven by appellee David Walker.[2] The incident occurred June 21, 2007; based on eyewitness reports, the state police concluded James attempted to commit suicide by jumping under the truck's trailer. On April 27, 2009, appellant Susan Octave, James's wife, filed a complaint in her own right and on behalf of James, an incapacitated person, against the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (DOT), Walker, and a number of other parties based upon their purported negligence.[3] The complaint alleged

Page 1257

James suffered a number of mental and physical injuries as a result of the incident and sought damages.

Because the state police concluded James was attempting to commit suicide, appellees sought discovery information regarding his mental health history and access to his mental health records, which Susan refused to provide. Appellees filed a motion for leave to access and copy sealed files pertaining to James's involuntary commitments pursuant to the MHPA and a motion to compel the execution of authorizations pertaining to his mental health and involuntary commitment records and full and complete answers to Interrogatory No. 63.[4] Thereafter, appellants filed an amended complaint, alleging James only suffered physical injuries as a result of the incident. The trial court issued an order disposing of appellees' motions, reasoning that because the amended complaint removed allegations pertaining to mental injuries, it did not place James's mental condition at issue. Walker filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied; the trial court certified the order for immediate appeal pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 702(b).

Appellees appealed to the Commonwealth Court, contending the trial court erred when it denied them access to James's mental health records and involuntary commitment records. Specifically, appellees argued the MHPA's confidentiality provisions were waived by Susan because she placed James's mental health at issue by filing the complaint. In defense to the underlying negligence claim, appellees asserted James intentionally caused his own injuries by throwing himself under Walker's vehicle in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Denying them access to the requested information, appellees argued, " would be manifestly unfair, grossly prejudicial and an affront to the truth-seeking function of the courts as Susan Octave should not be permitted to bring suit against [appellees] while depriving them of information which could totally absolve them of liability." Octave ex rel. Octave v. Walker, 37 A.3d 604, 607 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2011).

The Commonwealth Court reversed and remanded, finding " Susan Octave directly put James Octave's mental history, especially as it pertains to his previous suicide attempts, or considerations or contemplations

Page 1258

of suicide, [at issue] by filing a complaint alleging negligence by Walker and DOT in connection with the accident[,]" and thereby waived the MHPA's confidentiality protections. Id., at 610. The court further reasoned the information sought " relates directly to the issue of DOT's and Walker's liability, the defenses raised by Walker and DOT, and is information which impacts upon causation[, which] ... is certainly critical in a trial of a negligence action, if not more so than damages." Id.; see Gormley v. Edgar, 2010 PA Super 71, 995 A.2d 1197, 1206 (Pa. Super. 2010) (holding plaintiff waived Judicial Code's confidentiality protections for mental health records by seeking damages for anxiety); Kraus v. Taylor, 710 A.2d 1142, 1145 (Pa. Super. 1998) (holding plaintiff waived MHPA's and Judicial Code's confidentiality protections for his drug and alcohol medical records by filing personal injury lawsuit seeking damages for permanent injury thereby placing his life expectancy at issue), appeal dismissed as improvidently granted, 560 Pa. 220, 743 A.2d 451 (Pa. 2000) (per curiam). Accordingly, the court concluded it would be " unfair and grossly prejudicial" to bar Walker and DOT access to James's history of suicidal attempts or contemplations, and held:

Susan Octave must provide a full and complete answer to Interrogatory No. 63 and provide all medical records requested by DOT and Walker J to the trial court for an in camera review, so that the trial court may identify those records which pertain or relate, in any manner, to James Octave's history of suicidal attempts and/or contemplations, or desires or attempts to harm himself.

Octave, at 610.

Senior Judge Kelley dissented, concluding since the amended complaint sought damages only for physical, not mental, injury, " it cannot be said that [Susan] directly placed her husband's mental condition at issue as the plaintiffs had in Kraus and Gormley." Id., at 613 (Kelley, S.J., dissenting) (citing Premack v. J.C.J. Ogar, Inc., 148 F.R.D. 140, 145 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (" In a civil matter, however, there are numerous ways -- other than an absolute bar -- to ensure that both an individual's privacy and the truth-seeking function of the courts are sufficiently protected. First of all, an individual is always free to leave his or her mental condition out of a complaint -- thus assuring continued confidentiality[.]" )). Further, Senior Judge Kelley noted, given the unambiguous MHPA provisions, he " d[id] not believe that an implicit waiver of its confidentiality provisions can be found based upon the mere filing of the instant amended complaint[,]" especially since less intrusive means exist for Walker and DOT to contest causation -- " i.e., through the testimony of Walker and other eyewitnesses to the incident, and through the evidence that can be gleaned from the contents of the PSP files and the divorce and PFA records that are subject to discovery under the trial court's order." Id. (citations omitted).

We granted allocatur to address the following issue:

Given the [petitioners] do not explicitly waive the protections of 50 P.S. § 7111, given the [petitioners'] Amended Complaint does not allege injuries to mental health, given the [respondents] raise the question of mental health and seek the [petitioner's] pre-collision mental health records, and given the [respondents'] claim of mental health relies exclusively on the conclusions of a third party, did the [petitioners] put mental health at issue and impliedly waive the protections of 50 P.S. § 7111 though [sic] the act of filing the within lawsuit?

Octave ex rel. Octave v. Walker, 619 Pa. 176, 58 A.3d 753, 754 (Pa. 2012) (per curiam) (alterations in ...


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