March 2, 2021

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) in its opinion filed on February 2, 2021 affirmed the judgment of the United States District Court in a case where a civil jury found psychiatrist Dr. Tracie Rivera liable to patient Ronald Turner for professional negligence in the wrongful disclosure of Turner’s supposed threat to kill his supervisor.

The Federal Appellate Court stated that whether a psychotherapist actually believed or predicted a patient posed a serious risk of inflicting grave bodily harm on a reasonably identifiable victim is a question of fact for the finder of fact and that the jury’s finding that Rivera did not actually believe Turner posed a serious threat is supported by substantial evidence in the record.

The Federal Appellate Court further stated that Rivera was not entitled to immunity under California Civil Code Section 43.92(b), which provides immunity for psychotherapists who properly discharge their duty to warn because they believe the patient poses a serious risk of inflicting grave bodily injury upon a reasonably identifiable victim, because the jury found that Rivera held no such belief, and therefore she is not immune from her medical negligence arising from the disclosure.

The Federal Appellate Court held that although proof of the standard of care is not required to demonstrate a duty to warn under California Civil Code Section 43.92(a) or to prove the affirmative defense under Section 43.92(b), the district court did not abuse its discretion by permitting Turner’s expert testimony on the standard of care because Rivera invited this error by first urging the district court to require Turner to prove she violated the applicable standard of care before addressing her affirmative defense under California Civil Code Section 43.92.

The Federal Appellate Court further held that the district court’s adverse inference instruction was not an abuse of discretion because when Rivera testified at trial, she referred to handwritten notes that she never searched for or produced during discovery. The district court noted that the handwritten notes were the “centerpiece” of Rivera’s testimony. The jury instruction permitted, but did not require, the jury to consider the undisclosed handwritten notes in a favorable manner to Turner if it found that she intentionally concealed them. The jury is presumed to have followed the court’s instructions, and Rivera has not shown that the jury gave undue weight to this particular instruction.

However, the appellate opinion was not a total win for Turner. The Federal Appellate Court held that because the lawsuit was premised on a theory of professional negligence, the district court properly applied the California Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (“MICRA”) limit on noneconomic damages (Cal. Civ. Code §3333.2), and therefore the district court did not err by limiting the amount of damages under MICRA.

Source Turner v. Rivera, No. 19-16497 (9th Cir. 2021).

If you or a family member suffered harm as a result of psychiatrist malpractice in California or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a California medical malpractice lawyer, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your state, who may investigate your psychiatric malpractice claim for you and represent you or your family member in a psychiatrist malpractice case, if appropriate.

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