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‘Emotional Distress’ Liability Expanded In PA

February 8, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Obstetric Ultrasound
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A decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court exposes radiologists (and other medical professionals) to a new avenue of legal liability for infliction of emotional distress.

According to court documents, Jeanelle Toney underwent a pelvic ultrasound in March 2003 at The Chester County Hospital in West Chester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Radiologist Maheep Goyal, MD, told her, according to Pennsylvania’s Superior Court, “that her unborn child was normal and healthy.”

In July 2003, Toney delivered a son who suffered from profound deformities, including arms that ended at the elbow and legs that ended at the knee. She sued Dr. Goyal and the hospital for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit said that witnessing the birth after having been assured that her child was normal traumatized her.

According to the Superior Court, the lawsuit asserted that:

Toney suffered from grief, rage, nausea, hysteria, nervousness, sleeplessness, nightmares and anxiety, and continues to experience emotional and mental distress.

The lawsuit did not claim medical negligence. Toney did not claim that Dr. Goyal or anyone else physically harmed her or her son. Nor did she claim that an accurate reading of the ultrasound could have led to any effective treatment for her son.

A trial court threw out the lawsuit, saying Toney had to prove she had suffered a physical impact that triggered the emotional distress. The Superior Court disagreed. On December 22, 2011, a divided Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision. (One of the seven justices recused herself, and the court split 3-3.)

As a National Law Review article explains, most courts had previously allowed three grounds for successful claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress: distress resulting from physical impact (for example, a careless driver’s car hits and cripples a pedestrian), from close proximity to potential physical impact (the car just misses a pedestrian), or from witnessing a physical impact on a close relative (a mother sees the car hit her child).

This case creates a fourth ground: distress stemming from a breach of fiduciary duty that leads to, but does not result from, a physical impact.

The American Medical Association’s online magazine, amednews.com, quotes Stephen Raynes, one of Toney’s attorneys, as saying the ruling is narrow in scope and will only rarely allow such emotional-distress claims.

Attorneys for the defendants disagree. Charles Fitzpatrick III, Dr. Goyal’s attorney, predicted:

Not only are doctors going to get sued [by patients], but family members who are surprised by a loved one’s condition are going to sue. It’s expanding who can sue over these things.

An article at Lawyers.com quotes a defense lawyer uninvolved in the case as agreeing that it increases the likelihood of frivolous lawsuits. A trial court will now determine the merits of the case itself, which have not been addressed during the battle over whether it could be heard in the first place. We’ll keep an eye on this one.

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Do football concussions result from one big hit? Brain scans say no; see our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Advances in Fetal and Neonatal Imaging

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