An upstate appellate court has imposed a directed verdict against a physician who was absolved by a jury for disclosing information about a patient’s possible mental instability in violation of doctor-patient confidentiality.
The Appellate Division, Third Department panel also ordered in Juric v. Bergstraesser, 515333, that the case for breach of implied covenant of trust be remitted to Supreme Court in Ulster County for a new trial only on the issue of damages for plaintiff Damir Juric.
The Third Department reversed the 2011 determination by the Ulster County jurors because, the court said, jurors could not have legally found Dr. Lynn Bergstraesser innocent based on her affirmative defense for revealing the confidential medical information. She admitted that she did so because of her belief that Juric posed an "actual, current, imminent threat" to his wife Michelle and their child and acted out of concern for their safety, the court said.
"Thus, even according defendant every favorable inference and considering the facts in the light most favorable to her…we agree with plaintiff that there was ‘no valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could possibly lead rational [people] to the conclusion reached by the jury on the basis of evidence presented at trial,’" Justice Thomas Mercure (See Profile) wrote for the court, quoting Cohen v. Hallmark Cards, 45 NY2d 493 (1978).
By extension, the court also said it found the verdict in Bergstraesser’s favor to be against the weight of the evidence.
While Mercure said Bergstraesser had "grounds to be concerned" about Michelle Juric’s safety, he wrote that the doctor had never seen Damir Juric harm her or anyone else, had no knowledge that Juric made threats against his wife or had acted violently.
The court described Bergstraesser’s statements of belief that Michelle Juric was in immediate danger as "equivocal." While the doctor testified that she believed there was a chance that Michelle Juric was "going to be dead," Bergstraesser also conceded that often in similar circumstances, there was the possibility that "probably nothing [would] happen."
The court also noted that Bergstraesser did not notify local authorities of what she perceived to be the serious danger Michelle Juric faced.
"Under these circumstances, we conclude that the evidence was legally insufficient to support defendant’s affirmative defense of justification and so preponderated in plaintiff’s favor that the jury could not have reached in conclusion based on a fair interpretation of it," Mercure wrote.
Damir Juric’s suit contended that, based on the doctor’s warning to his wife, his visitation with his young daughter was denied for several months. Earlier, he said Michelle Juric had left him based in part on the physician’s "advice" and concerns about her safety.
Bergstraesser said she had been the Jurics’ family physician when she noticed Damir Juric’s overbearing behavior toward his wife. The doctor said she suspected Damir Juric could be suffering from a severe, undiagnosed mental illness.
Bergstraesser said she tried to talk to Damir Juric about his behavior and urged him to seek psychiatric help, but he stormed out of her office and never returned.
In December 2004, Damir Juric appeared at the emergency room of Benedictine Hospital in Kingston complaining of chest and ear pain. The emergency room doctor on duty called Bergstraesser, believing she was still his physician, and noted that he was exhibiting what Bergstraesser called "bizarre behavior" likely caused by a "major psychiatric pathology."
Juric refused the emergency room doctor’s recommendation that he be admitted to the hospital.
The following day, Bergstraesser acknowledged getting Michelle Juric’s cellphone number from her mother and calling the woman to warn her about the hospital visit by her husband and that she could be in danger.
The judge at Bergstraesser’s trial, Michael Melkonian, denied a motion from the plaintiff under CPLR 4404(a) to set aside the jury’s verdict.
Michael Sussman of Sussman & Watkins in Goshen represented Damir Juric.
"It is unusual that jury verdicts are set aside and, in this case, it was very well warranted based on the facts," Sussman said in an interview. "There have to be constraints on confidentiality disclosure and physicians have to be conscious of their obligations to their patients."
Angela Thompson-Tinsley argued for Bergstraesser.
"My client is a competent caring physician who was faced with an extremely difficult situation," she said in a statement. "She acted in a manner that she considered to be in the best interests of her patient and the jury’s verdict validated her actions. We are disappointed that the Appellate Division did not uphold the verdict. We are still considering our options."
The April 25 ruling was the second time the Third Department had sided with Juric in the case.
In Juric v. Bergstraesser, 44 AD3d 1186 (2007), a Third Department panel reinstated the complaint against Bergstraesser after it had been dismissed by a Supreme Court justice. The court said Damir Juric had erred by claiming a violation of his common-law right to privacy—the court said no such right is recognized in New York—but allowed him to change his common law claim to one based on a potential breach by Bergstraesser of the implied covenant of trust and confidence that is inherent in the patient-physician relationship.
In that same October 2007 decision, the Third Department removed Benedictine Hospital as a defendant in the case.
Joel Stashenko is a reporter for the New York Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.