As a St. Louis head injury lawyer, I know head injuries are complex injuries that often seem like they come from unrelated causes, or more than one cause. That was why I was interested to see the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling in State ex rel. BNSF Railway Co. v. Neill, a case in which a railroad wants to see the psychiatric records of a brain-injured worker suing for his injures. Michael Patton sued BNSF over injuries sustained in an August 2001 fall resulting in injures to his head, neck and shoulder. Patton was already under psychiatric treatment, and BNSF wanted to argue at trial that the fall was caused by Patton’s use of psychiatric drugs. The trial court prevented the records’ discovery, but the high court reversed in light of the specific circumstances.
Patton, whose job was not specified, was performing heavy manual labor in the heat of a Missouri August when he fell in August of 2001. He fell again at work in October of 2002 when he discovered that colleagues had filled his car with garbage as a prank. In both cases, he alleged that BNSF had negligently failed to provide a safe workplace, which he says has caused recurring seizures or fainting spells. BNSF argues that Patton’s problems stem from abuse of, or withdrawal from, prescription drugs, a theory supported by records of an unrelated previous lawsuit and by medical records, which showed that Patton was receiving powerful prescription medications from two different doctors before the doctors learned of one another’s existence. Patton’s first accident happened shortly after those doctors scaled back his access to the drugs. He later sought the drugs at several emergency rooms.
Patton later began treatment with a psychiatrist, Dr. Shankararao Rao, who had prescribed drugs for depression and anxiety when Patton’s second accident happened. BNSF subpoenaed all records from Rao’s office related to Patton, believing they would have admissible evidence. The trial court instead granted a protective order to Patton’s records, ruling that Rao’s records were irrelevant.
BNSF petitioned the Missouri Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus reversing that decision. A temporary writ was granted, and in this decision, the writ was made permanent. It first noted that even when information is not admissible at trial, it may still be discoverable if it contains discoverable information. The trial court felt that Patton’s mental condition must be irrelevant to a claim that is solely for physical injuries, but the high court said it had failed to consider the relevance of the information BNSF actually sought. Documents sought must be “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence,” the court noted, and these documents meet that test because they are relevant to causation. Trial courts must use their discretion in each case about whether the discovery request meets criteria or is just a “fishing expedition,” the Supreme Court said — but it was incorrect for the trial court to deny discovery simply because Patton made no psychiatric claims.
One dissent argued that BNSF’s request was overly broad, particularly considering that it already had Rao’s prescription records and may have abused the discovery process. Another dissent argued that the situation is not extraordinary enough to justify interference with the trial court.
As a Missouri personal injury attorney, I’m very interested in the issue of when discovery steps over the line. When an individual sues a large company, as in this case, the deck is stacked for the company because of its greater financial resources and legal firepower. This can give the stronger party an incentive to drag out discovery, picking fights over requests it knows very well will not be permitted by a competent judge. One dissent in this case suggests that BNSF abused the discovery process in several ways, and thus the denial of this discovery request may have been a sanction. Whether or not that’s true, it pays for plaintiffs like Patton to have an experienced southern Illinois bran injury lawyer by their sides so they can fight off abusive, invasive discovery requests.
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