From the Desk of Melanie Rose:
ORCP 44C acts as an exception to the doctor-patient privilege that otherwise might protect certain medical records from disclosure. It requires a “Claimant” to produce all medical records “relating to the injuries for which recovery is sought.” However, in a wrongful death context, the rule’s application is less straightforward because, in a wrongful death suit, the Claimant is merely the Personal Representative of the Estate.
The Oregon Supreme Court determined that in the context of wrongful death suits, statutory beneficiaries are not “parties” because they do not have the authority to control the litigation, and thus they are not subject to the requirements of ORCP 44C to produce records related to their medical treatments.
Dahlton v. Kyser, 370 Or 34 (2022).
Baby Dahlton, “the Decedent”, was born prematurely with complex medical issues, including heart defects. When Decedent was five months old, he died from cardiac arrest and his mother (“Dahlton”), acting as Decedent’s Personal Representative, filed a wrongful death action against several defendants, alleging that the death was due to negligent medical treatment. Dahlton sought both economic damages and noneconomic damages for loss of the Decedent’s society and companionship on behalf of Baby Dahlton’s Estate.
During discovery, Dahlton was served with discovery requests seeking the medical treatment records of Dahlton and the other statutory beneficiaries of Baby Dahlton’s Estate to evaluate the claimed “loss of companionship” damages. Dahlton objected to these requests as the requested records pertained to the beneficiaries’ medical care which, Dahlton argued, is protected from disclosure by the physician-patient privilege.
Defendants moved to compel production arguing that the records were discoverable under ORCP 44C. In response, Dahlton argued that statutory beneficiaries in wrongful death actions are not parties within the meaning of ORCP 44C and that the “injury” for purposes of the rule was solely the Decedent’s death and not the beneficiaries’ response to the death. Thus, Dahlton argued, the records from the beneficiaries were not discoverable because they were not related to the injury for which recovery was sought: the death of Baby Dahlton.
Ultimately, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with Dahlton and issued an opinion that the medical records of the statutory beneficiaries of Baby Dahlton’s Estate were not discoverable to the Defendants.
ORCP 44C provides that “[i]n a civil action, where a claim is made for damages for injuries to the party” the claimant, upon request, “shall deliver to the requesting party a copy of all written reports and existing notations of any examinations relating to injuries for which recovery is sought.”
ORS 30.020 is Oregon’s wrongful death statute. ORS 30.020 states that the Personal Representative of a decedent can “maintain an action against the wrongdoer, if the decedent might have maintained an action, had the decedent lived, against the wrongdoer for an injury done by the same act or omission.” The Personal Representative has control over the litigation while the beneficiaries have no right to participate in the litigation process on behalf of the Estate.
The wrongful death statute authorizes the recovery of damages including the decedent’s “disability, pain, suffering and loss of income during the period between injury to the decedent and the decedent’s death,” ORS 30.020(2)(b), and damages for “pecuniary loss to the decedent’s estate,” ORS 30.020(2)(c). ORS 30.020 also allows for the recovery of damages to compensate the decedent’s immediate family for pecuniary loss and for loss of society, companionship, and services of the decedent. ORS 30.020(2)(d).
First, the Oregon Supreme Court considered whether statutory beneficiaries of an estate are considered “parties” to a wrongful death suit under ORCP 44C.
The Court began its analysis with the legal definition of “party” within the context of ORCP 44C. After examining the definitions given in Black’s Law Dictionary throughout the years, the Court concluded that in the context of litigation, “party” means a person who brings a suit or defends against the action and who has control of the proceedings.
The Court looked at the text of the wrongful death statute which states that only the Personal Representative of the Estate has the authority to maintain and control a wrongful death action. Contrastingly, the statutory beneficiaries of an Estate are not given any rights to control wrongful death litigation, and thus are not “parties” to the case. Under this statute, the beneficiaries had no legal authority to make decisions regarding how litigation should proceed, and the Personal Representative had no ability to force any action or behavior from an Estate beneficiary. For example, the Personal Representative had no ability to compel an estranged family member to participate in the wrongful death case.
This distinction made all the difference for the Court when it held that the beneficiaries are not “parties” within the meaning of ORCP 44C and thus the Defendants could not compel the beneficiaries’ medical records. While Dahlton, as the Personal Representative, was a “party” under ORCP 44C that must produce medical records related to the wrongful death claim of Baby Dahlton, the Court held that she was only a party in her capacity as Personal Representative. The Court further concluded that Dahlton was required to produce records pertaining to the alleged injury suffered by the Decedent, but records that pertained to any damages that Dahlton had suffered in her capacity as a beneficiary, and any records pertaining solely to the medical care that Dahlton received, are not records that Dahlton could be compelled to produce as the Personal Representative for the Decedent’s Estate.
In the wrongful death context, statutory beneficiaries are not considered parties to the suit. Thus, the loss of a decedent’s society and companionship is not an injury “to the party” for purposes of ORCP 44C, which means medical records of the estate beneficiaries cannot be discovered.