Mental Health Records in Court
A Pennsylvania woman who, following an automobile accident, sued another driver for negligence found herself faced with a difficult choice. During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, a time when both sides exchange information and documents about the case, the woman objected to sharing all of her medical records. She released most of her medical records but claimed that one of her gynecological visits and one hospital emergency room visit were private and irrelevant. She asked that they be protected from discovery and disclosure.
After reviewing the records privately without disclosing them to the lawyers in the case, the trial judge agreed with the woman in regard to the gynecology record but found that the emergency room visit, a mental health event, was discoverable. The woman appealed.
The appellate court first held that the question was immediately appealable, prior to trial. Most lawsuits cannot be appealed before trial; in rare instances, though, pretrial appeals on narrow issues are permitted. The appellate court found that public policy strongly favors the privacy of mental health records and noted that pretrial appeals are sometimes necessary to protect that privacy.
But the court went on to require the disclosure of the mental health record. Acknowledging that the privacy of mental health records is essential to maintaining public confidence in mental health treatment, the court stated that the woman had put her own mental health at issue by claiming that the accident had caused her anxiety and an inability to enjoy life normally or to engage in daily functions. The court also noted that the trial judge had given the woman the option of dropping her claims about her anxiety and adjustment problems, but that she had refused. Because the woman had made her mental health an issue in the case, she had to produce the mental health record or suffer a dismissal of her case.
The appellate court cautioned that claims for humiliation, mental anguish, pain, and shock do not open the door to the discovery of mental health records. Only claims that clearly assert mental health suffering caused by the accident or incident will trigger the obligation to disclose mental health records and, in deciding disclosure issues, the courts will always honor privacy as much as possible. Records of involuntary mental health commitments will be given more privacy than will records of voluntary outpatient treatment.