Brief Fact Summary. The plaintiff, administratrix of her husband’s estate (the “plaintiff’), filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the owners and architects of her husband’s office building, the defendants, Rockefeller Center Inc. and others (the “defendants”), after plaintiff’s husband fell from the 36th floor. The defendants sought to introduce evidence of the decedent’s mental capacity in order to show that he may have committed suicide.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. An evidentiary privilege may not be relied on to exclude evidence when the party seeking the privilege has affirmatively put in issue the mental condition of the deceased in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Issue. Whether evidentiary privileges prevent disclosure regarding the mental condition of decedent in a wrongful death action?
If the decedent had survived, could he have successfully resisted the Defendants’ attempt at disclosure?
Held. Justice Meyer issued the opinion of the New York Court of Appeals in affirming the lower courts and holding that the plaintiff’s affirmative act bringing the lawsuit put decedent’s mental condition at issue, and the evidentiary privilege could not be used.
The decedent, had he survived and been the plaintiff, could not have relied on the patient-physician privilege to prevent inquiry as to whether his injuries were the result of a suicide attempt.
Discussion. If mental or physical condition is an issue in a personal injury or a wrongful death lawsuit, a plaintiff may lose the physician patient privilege. A plaintiff should not be allowed to succeed in a lawsuit by hiding behind the privilege, which might allow the defendant to show his lack of culpability.