The Indiana Court of Appeals recently reversed a trial court’s order on a motion for preliminary determination filed by a dentist in a dental malpractice case directing a patient to redact portions of her submission to a medical review panel formed to review the case. In White v. Nichols, Millie White (“White”) filed a dental malpractice case against John Lee Nichols, D.D.S. and John L. Nichols, D.D.S., P.C. (“Dr. Nichols”) as a result of injuries stemming from the placement of a dental bridge. Prior to filing the lawsuit, White notified the Indiana Dental Association of her complaints, and in response, the Indiana Dental Association provided White and Dr. Nichols a “resolution letter” setting forth a panel of dentists’ findings and recommendations. White’s submission to the medical review panel included the text of the resolution letter. Dr. Nichols filed a motion for preliminary determination asking the trial court to order White to redact the contents of the resolution letter from her submission arguing the letter was privileged and inadmissible. The trial court ordered White to redact the contents of the resolution letter and White appealed.
Under the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act (MMA), when bringing a medical malpractice claim against a qualified provider patients must file a proposed complaint before the Indiana Department of Insurance and present the proposed complaint to a medical review panel and receive an opinion from the panel before prosecuting their case in court. During the medical review panel process, the jurisdiction of a trial court is limited. The MMA provides that a trial court has jurisdiction to “(1) preliminary determine an affirmative defense or issue of law or fact that may be preliminarily determined under the Indiana Rules of Procedure; or (2) compel discovery in accordance with the Indiana Rules of Procedure.” Ind. Code § 34-18-11-1.
White argued on appeal that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to order her to redact the resolution letter from her submission. Examining the limited scope of jurisdiction afforded trial courts under the MMA, the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed and held the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction in ordering White to redact the resolution letter from her submission. The Court found Dr. Nichols’ request did not concern a discovery issue, as both White and Dr. Nichols already had the resolution letter. The Court found that although privilege in some cases could be considered an affirmative defense, in this case, the privilege was not Dr. Nichols’ privilege but rather a third party’s privilege and therefore was not Dr. Nichols’ affirmative defense as to White’s claim against him. And lastly, the Court found Dr. Nichols’ motion did not request the trial court to preliminarily determine any issues of law or fact that may be preliminarily determined under Indiana Trial Rule 12(d).
The Court of Appeals further found that even if the trial court had jurisdiction, it did not have authority to order White to redact the resolution letter from her submission. The Court reviewed prior case precedent and reaffirmed that neither a medical review panel chairman nor a trial court can act as a gatekeeper to determine what evidence a medical review panel may consider. Medical review panels alone have authority to determine what evidence they will consider. As such, the Court found that, even assuming the trial court had jurisdiction to consider Dr. Nichols’ motion for preliminary determination, the trial court erred in ordering White to redact the resolution letter.
You can read the full, currently unpublished/non-citable, opinion here.