Harlan Wood Edward Piasta Atlanta Harlan Wood (left) and Edward Piasta, Atlanta (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

A Douglas County judge has barred State Farm and the at-fault driver in a car wreck lawsuit from disputing that his actions caused the plaintiff’s injuries as a sanction for the defense hiring the plaintiff’s treating radiologist.

The sanctions order, filed last month by Superior Court Judge Cynthia Adams, said the defense “essentially co-opted” the plaintiff’s radiologist and “and made him the defendant’s own witness.”

The defense tactic constitutes bad faith and violated the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, said Adams, ruling the plaintiff’s case was irreparably prejudiced.

Plaintiff’s attorney Edward Piasta of Piasta Newbern Walker said the trial is expected to be held in March. According to Adams’ order, the only issues for determination will be the extent of Anne Lussier’s injuries and the amount of damages she’s due.

Piasta said Adams “obviously took it very seriously, and we appreciate her holding State Farm accountable for violating our client’s rights,” said Piasta, who is representing Lussier with Wood & Craig partner Harlan Wood.

The defense has been handled by at least three attorneys with State Farm’s staff counsel: Lynn Leonard & Associates, formerly known as Sharon Ware & Associates.

Two of those lawyers have moved on to other companies, including the lawyer who contacted Jeffries, Julie Monaghan, who did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The current defense counsel, Jason Green—who was not involved when the contact occurred—also did not respond to requests for comment. State Farm spokesman Justin Tomczak said via email that the insurer “will continue to make our case in court and have nothing further to share at this point.”

According to Piasta and court filings, the case involves a September 2012 rear-end collision that left Lussier with back injuries requiring two spinal fusion surgeries and netted more than $200,000 in medical bills.

A month after the wreck, Lussier’s orthopedist had Jeffries review an MRI. Jeffries never personally met Lussier.

In 2015, Monaghan contacted Jeffries and asked him to review her medical records and to provide causation opinions related to the case.

According to the plaintiff’s sanctions motion, the doctor was asked not to commit anything to writing until defense counsel “met privately with Jeffries—in clear and direct violation of HIPAA.”

The motion said Jeffries admitted in a deposition that he knew he was Lussier’s radiologist but nonetheless met with the defense lawyer.

“Only after this ‘oral’ meeting occurred, and his time billed to defendant, did Jeffries draft an expert report against his patient,” the motion said.

After receiving his report, State Farm offered to settler Lussier’s claim for $25,000—one-quarter of the $100,000 available policy limits—“relying on Jeffries ‘causation’ opinions to reduce plaintiff’s claim. Such conduct is forbidden by federal and Georgia law,” the motion said.

The motion said Jeffries has been a regular consultant for State farm over the years, handling more than 600 cases for Sharon Ware alone.

A defense response argued Jeffries simply overlooked the fact he reviewed Lussier’s records in 2012. There is no evidence Lussier’s case was damaged by Jeffries, and all of the medical information he reviewed was disclosed during discovery, the defense said.

“To the extent that there was a HIPPA violation, it was nominal at best, and hardly something that would justify interfering with the defendant’s right to substantively defend this lawsuit,” the defense argued.

The filings suggested Jeffries’ testimony simply be excluded to “allow defendant to carefully secure an alternate radiologist to review this case.”

Adams clearly felt otherwise. Her order, filed on Nov. 20, said Jeffries “would naturally be a key witness, even a lynchpin of plaintiff’s case” as Lussier’s treating radiologist.

“[T]he defendant’s conduct robs the plaintiff of her original treating radiologist, i.e. a key witness and element of proof of causation,” Adams wrote, a “central issue of dispute” in the case.

Adams also said that the defense should be punished for conduct that “irrevocably tarnished this aspect of the case.”

“Striking Dr. Jeffries as an expert would be no deterrent at all; and would indeed serve to prejudice only the plaintiff,” Adams wrote.

“The defendant would have effectively neutralized plaintiff’s first choice of medical experts – her treating doctor  while leaving defendant free to choose whomever it would to replace him. Only a harsh sanction would properly address the harm to this plaintiff, and disincentivize such conduct in the future.”