Missouri Court of Appeals Weighs in on the Breadth of Discoverable Prescription Records, Post-MortemJanuary 19, 2018 | Catherine Stevens
Decedent’s wife filed a lawsuit in Barton County, Missouri in 2016 after her husband was killed when a dump/bale bed manufactured by defendant Cannonball Engineering, which he was repairing at the time of the incident, crushed him. Plaintiff sued Cannonball on various negligence and product liability theories. A coroner’s two post-mortem blood samples, collected on the date of decedent’s death, revealed reportable amounts of opioid prescription pain medication.
Cannonball served discovery, seeking information on decedent’s prescription medications for about six years prior to his death. Plaintiff objected that the request was overbroad as to time and scope, and violated the decedent’s physician-patient privilege. Cannonball moved to compel the production of records.
Plaintiff argued that the only physical or medical condition identified in Plaintiff’s Petition was the crushing injury that killed decedent; that case law only entitles a defendant to medical records that relate to physical conditions put in issue by the Plaintiff’s pleading; and that any discovery in excess of this scope amounts also to a violation of the physician-patient privilege.
Cannonball argued that it was entitled the information because it was relevant to: (1) the impact the prescription pain medications may have had on decedent’s abilities around the time of his death; and (2) Cannonball’s affirmative defense of comparative fault (i.e., the decedent knew that it was unsafe to consume the medications and then operate heavy equipment, but negligently did so anyway). Cannonball also argued that the information was discoverable because Plaintiff alleged failure to warn and thereby impliedly asserted that decedent had the mental capacity to appreciate the warnings on the dump/bale at the time of the accident.
The trial judge sustained Cannonball’s Motion to Compel and ordered Plaintiff to execute the requested authorization for decedent’s prescription medications. Plaintiff applied for a writ of prohibition to block the trial court’s order.
The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Southern District granted the writ, concluding that the trial court had abused its discretion. The Court of Appeals noted that the physician-patient privilege remains intact until a plaintiff’s physical condition – as put in issue by the pleadings - is waived.The Court of Appeals held that Plaintiff’s allegations placed decedent’s cognitive function at the time of the incident at issue and waived his physician-patient privilege with respect to records that related to the issue of his mental capacity at or around the time of his death. On this basis, Cannonball, who alleged that decedent may have been cognitively impaired at the time of his death, was entitled to discover decedent’s prescription medication records at or near the event. But there was no justification for the trial court to allow discovery of nearly six years of prescription records, when decedent’s mental capacity only at or around the time of the incident was at issue.
“Reasonable Attorney’s Fees” Awarded On a Missouri Merchandising Practices Act Claim May Not Be Limited By a Plaintiff’s Contingency Fee Agreement With CounselJanuary 5, 2018 | Robert Chandler
In Selleck v. Keith M. Evans Insurance, Inc., the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District remanded a case back to the trial court for further consideration on the reasonableness of an award of attorney’s fees, under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act. The trial court ruling limiting plaintiff’s fees based upon his contingency fee agreement with his attorney was overturned.
Plaintiff sued his former employer in state Circuit Court for wrongful discharge, unpaid commissions under the MMPA, unjust enrichment and breach of contract. The litigation was “contentious” and “antagonistic”, with numerous discovery disputes. At trial, plaintiff requested damages for wrongful discharge in the amount of $160,000 and lost commissions in the amount of $11,709. Plaintiff presented evidence at trial that he had hired counsel on a contingency fee basis. The jury ruled for Defendant on the wrongful discharge claim, but awarded Plaintiff $10,000 for lost commissions on his MMPA claim.
Plaintiff’s counsel filed a post-trial motion seeking attorney’s fees in the amount of $221,292 under § 407.193, which states that a trial court “may award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party.” Plaintiff’s counsel represented that they billed 788 hours by attorneys with hourly billing rates of $280 and $450. Noting that Plaintiff has entered into a one-third contingency fee agreement with counsel, the Court ruled that Plaintiff was entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and awarded $3,333.33, or one-third of the $10,000 recovery. The Court found that the $221,292 claimed by plaintiff’s counsel was not reasonable and extremely excessive for the type of case involved. Plaintiff appealed.
Contingency Fee Agreement Does Not Serve as a Cap on MMPA Attorney’s Fees
Plaintiff’s single point on appeal was that the trial court erred in utilizing the contingency fee agreement to determine the award of attorneys’ fees under the MMPA. The Court of Appeals agreed. Although Missouri law does not prohibit consideration of a contingency fee agreement in making a reasonable-fee determination, it is only one of many factors that must be considered. However, the agreement cannot be used to impose an automatic ceiling on reasonable fees to be awarded. The Court must also consider other factors, including a determination of a “lodestar” amount – determined by multiplying the reasonable number of hours for the type of case by a reasonable hourly rate determined by rates customarily charged by the attorneys involved as well as other attorneys in the community offering similar services.
Concluding that the Circuit Court had used the contingency fee agreement to determine a cap on reasonable fees for Plaintiff’s counsel, the Court of Appeals reversed, and remanded the matter to the trial court for a determination of a reasonable fee based upon not only the contingency fee agreement, but also:
-the number of hours reasonably expended on the case,
-the nature and character of the services rendered,
-the degree of professional ability required,
-the nature and importance of the matter,
-the amount involved or the results obtained, and
-the vigor of the opposition.
Conclusion - Guidance for the Future
Although a contingency fee agreement may be considered in determining reasonable attorney’s fees under the MMPA, it is but one of many factors for the trial court to assess. The contingency fee provided for in the agreement cannot be used as a “cap” on MMPA attorney’s fees.
In Shallow v. Follwell, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri reversed and remanded a jury’s verdict for defendant Dr. Follwell, holding the trial court improperly allowed cumulative expert witness testimony that imperiled the jury’s ability to fairly consider the quality and quantity of expert witness opinions.
The case involved a surgical mesh procedure to repair decedent’s hernia. After the doctor twice within 24 hours discharged the patient from the hospital, she returned to the hospital a third time, where she was diagnosed with a severe infection in her abdominal cavity, caused by leakage of toxic and infectious bowel contents into her abdomen. She died soon thereafter.
At trial, Dr. Follwell – designated as a fact and expert witness on his own behalf – did not dispute that decedent’s bowel was perforated, leaked, and caused the septic condition that led to her death. He denied that he caused the hole in her bowel, however, and presented his alternative theory that decedent suffered from undiagnosed atrial fibrillation, which caused a blood clot to form, restricted the blood flow to that section of decedent’s bowel, and ultimately weakened and perforated the bowel wall. Four other retained experts testified for Dr. Follwell: (1) a critical care specialist; (2) a cardiologist and internist; (3) a vascular surgeon; and (4) a colorectal surgeon.
While there is no “bright line” rule as to how many expert witnesses a party may utilize to prove or defend its case, Missouri trial courts are charged with admitting evidence that is both logically and legally relevant. The concept of legal relevance includes whether the evidence may, among other things, pose a danger of unfair prejudice, be a waste of time, and amount to the needless presentation of cumulative evidence. Missouri courts have expressed concern that excessive cumulative evidence risks invading the jury’s ability to resolve the case on the merits and evaluate the quality and credibility of expert opinions. Cumulative expert opinions may instead result in the jury simply “counting heads.” The Shallow v. Follwell court held that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to properly determine when cumulative evidence should stop.
It was not just the number of defendant’s experts that caused the Court of Appeals to reach its conclusion. Rejecting the defendant’s claim that each expert’s testimony was limited to his own area of medical expertise - cardiology, internal medicine, critical care, the vascular system, and the gastrointestinal system - the Court of Appeals ruled that what actually happened was that each expert presented his expert opinion in his own area of expertise, but also repeated the sum and substance of the defense’s alternative theory of causation, in testimony that extended beyond the expert’s specialty. The jury therefore heard the same opinions multiple times – essentially a “chorus of the same ultimate opinions” – which impeded its duty and ability to fairly weigh the evidence on each side.
In returning the case to the Circuit Court for a new trial, the Court of Appeals chastised the trial court for “ignoring its duty to properly assess whether the testimony was needed,” and reminded the trial court “to adhere to the principles and standards set forth in this opinion and elsewhere in Missouri law for determining the admissibility of cumulative evidence.”
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