Keeping the “I” In IME: Pa. Supreme Court Refuses To Overturn Order Barring Plaintiff’s Lawyer From Portions of Neuropsych IME

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HARRISBURG, Jan. 18 –  Defendants in Pennsylvania civil personal injury litigation may have gotten a bit more incentive to try to keep independent medical exams free of interference by Plaintiffs’ lawyers.  This week, the Pa. Supreme Court quashed an interlocutory appeal from a trial court order barring the plaintiff’s counsel from attending parts of his client’s neuropsychological IME or recording the exam.

In Shearer v. Hafer, 2018 Pa. Lexis 353, the Pa. Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal  to consider whether a plaintiff in a civil personal injury action has the right to have counsel present and to record a neuropsychological examination of that plaintiff by a defendant’s neuropsychologist.  At the trial court level in Shearer, a Lebanon County judge issued a protective order ruling that the personal injury Plaintiff’s counsel could be present during the preliminary interview phase of the exam, but that no individual would be permitted in the evaluation room with Mrs. Shearer and the doctor during the standardized testing portion of the evaluation.  The order also provided that  the evaluation could not  be recorded.

On appeal to the Pa. Superior Court, the court affirmed the trial court ruling after finding that the order in question was collateral and properly appealable.   The Plaintiff then sought an allowance of appeal from the state Supreme Court.

In a 6-1 ruling,  the Pa. Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court ruling, and quashed the appeal, finding that an appeal from  the order in question was an unauthorized interlocutory appeal.  In writing for the majority, Justice Sandra McCloskey Todd analyzed the order under a three-part test for the appealability of interlocutory orders.

While finding that the order was separable from the main cause of action of the automobile accident case, thus satisfying the first prong of the analysis, Justice Todd found that the second and third elements of the analysis were not met.  As to the second element, the Court found that the interests in question would not go unprotected without immediate appellate review.  As to the third prong, The Court also found that the right asserted, i.e., to counsel at the entire IME,  would not be irretrievably lost, as the Plaintiff could obtain a new trial following an appeal at the end of the case.

The Court went to some length to discuss that the right of counsel at an IME was not a constitutional one, but rather one granted in the Pa. Rules of Civil Procedure,  Pa.R.C.P. 4010.  Those rules also provide that trial courts can craft protective orders in discovery to balance and accommodate the interests of competing litigants, via Pa.R.C.P. 4012.

While the Supreme Court did not address the merits of the protective order itself, the ruling suggests that if a protective order limiting the participation of the Plaintiff’s lawyer at an IME can be secured from the trial court,  the benefits of such an order are not likely to be disturbed by interlocutory appeal.

 

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Application Satisfies Requirement of Written Election of Lower UM/UIM Limits, Federal Court Finds

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HARRISBURG, Dec. 29 – A U.S. District Court magistrate judge has ruled that an original signed application was  a valid means of choosing UM/UIM limits lesser than bodily injury limits under Pennsylvania’s motor vehicle law, even if a separate option selection form was not compliant with the statute.

In Farmland Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sechrist, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213618 (M.D. Pa., Dec. 29, 2017)(Arbuckle, M.J.), Plaintiff Farmland Mutual Insurance Company filed a declaratory judgment suit  against Defendants Edward Alfred Sechrist and Gary Bryant Kauffman, employees of Farmland’s insured, Clouse Trucking, seeking a  ruling that the commercial automobile insurance policy issued with a $1 million liability limit  provided $35,000 of combined single limit coverage for underinsured motorist claims arising out of an accident on April 30, 2013 in which both Sechrist and Bryant were seriously injured.

The Employees opposed Farmland Mutual, contending that the UIM limit should be equal to the policy’s bodily injury liability limit of $1 millon, on grounds that there was not a valid election of lesser UIM coverage pursuant to the Pa.M.V.F.R.L.  The employees claimed that the insurance policy should be reformed to include one million dollars of underinsured motorist coverage because the requirement of a signed writing choosing reduced UIM coverage  under 75 Pa.C.S.A. section 1734 was not met.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William I. Arbuckle first agreed with the employees that a specific UIM option selection form did not comply with section 1734 and was therefore not a valid election of lesser coverage:

Section 1734 of the MVFRL allows a named insured to elect limits of underinsured motorist coverage in an amount equal to or less than a policy’s liability limit for bodily injury. 75 Pa.C.S.A. section 1734.   Absent a signed, written election for lesser coverage, it is presumed that the underinsured motorist coverage limit is the same as the bodily injury liability coverage limit. . .

The Underinsured Motorist Coverage Selection form in this case. . .    is signed by Mr. Clouse but does not expressly designate the amount of coverage requested. Accordingly, we find that this form does not satisfy the requirements of  75 Pa.C.S.A. section 1734.

Judge Arbuckle went on to find, however, that the original insurance application prepared by an insurance agent, and signed by Mr. Clouse selecting the lesser amount of coverage, did meet the requirement of a signed writing under section 1734:

The parties dispute whether the Insurance Policy Application in this case satisfies the writing requirement of section 1734. . . Farmland contends that the Farmland Policy Application signed by Mr. Clouse is a valid written election of lower coverage under section 1734. By contrast, the Employees contend that the Farmland Policy Application does not satisfy the requirements of section 1734 because: (1) the Farmland Policy Application does not advise Clouse Trucking of Farmland’s obligation to offer underinsured Motorist coverage limits equal to the Farmland Policy’s limit for bodily injury; and (2) the Farmland Policy Application is not a clear indication of Clouse Trucking’s intent to purchase a underinsured motorist coverage below the Farmland Policy limit for bodily injury because the blanks in the Farmland Policy Application were filled in by an insurance agent.

As an initial matter, I find that Farmland is correct that the Farmland  Policy Application meets the requirements of section 1734. The Farmland Policy Application  is signed by Mr. Clouse, and does request a specific amount of underinsured motorist coverage.

In short, Judge Arbuckle found that the policy documents, including the application, constituted a valid written request for reduced UIM coverage.  He also found that whether or not an insurance agent completed the application itself  was irrelevant, provided, as here, that the insured certified via signature his review and adoption of the statements contained in the application.

Farmland Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sechrist, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213618 (M.D. Pa., Dec. 29, 2017)(Arbuckle, M.J.)