Massachusetts Appellate Court Rules Emotional Distress Case can Proceed Against Expert Witness

In Harrison v. Roitman, a husband retained a psychiatrist to provide expert witness testimony regarding his wife’s psychiatric state during a highly confrontational divorce proceeding. The expert witness, however, never met the wife or conducted an examination of her, but instead he provided a written report to the presiding judge explaining that the wife suffered from a personality disorder, had severe mental health problems, and did not show signs of improvement.

The wife filed an action against the expert witness, alleging that the psychiatrist committed malpractice in providing the report because he had not conducted any examinations of the plaintiff and did not know her. In her complaint, the wife contended that she experienced emotional distress as a result of the psychiatrist’s report, alleging theories of negligent and intentional emotional distress in addition to a claim alleging civil conspiracy. The wife’s main theory was that providing such a report and making such medical diagnoses without conducting an examination or reviewing records from other treating physicians breached the medical community standard of care for a psychiatric doctor.

According to Massachusetts law, a plaintiff can recover damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress when the defendant exhibits extreme and outrageous conduct that causes another to suffer severe emotional distress. Unlike some jurisdictions, the plaintiff does not need to show physical manifestations of such emotional distress. Courts have listed four elements that a plaintiff must prove in an intentional infliction of emotional distress case:

  • The defendant intended to cause emotional distress, or knew or should have known that emotional distress would result from his or her actions;
  • The defendant acted in an extreme and outrageous way, and in a manner that we would describe as beyond the bounds of decency;
  • The defendant’s conduct was the direct cause of the victim’s emotional distress; and
  • No reasonable person should be expected to suffer the emotional distress that resulted from the defendant’s conduct.

The psychiatrist responded to the complaint by bringing a motion to dismiss on the basis that a medical professional providing testimony in a lawsuit is immune from lawsuits involving such testimony. The judge concluded that the psychiatrist enjoyed complete immunity in the lawsuit between the husband and wife and dismissed the wife’s claim for emotional distress. The wife filed an appeal, alleging that although the psychiatrist had immunity, the immunity only applied to defamation claims and not claims alleging the intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

According to the appellate court, the wife’s interpretation of Massachusetts’ immunity law was correct. A testifying expert enjoys immunity from defamation lawsuits but is not protected from lawsuits claiming intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. The appellate court reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.

If you have suffered injuries or emotional distress as a result of another person’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation. At the Law Offices of John S. Moffa, our dedicated team of personal injury lawyers have provided compassionate, personalized, and aggressive legal representation to victims throughout Massachusetts. We offer a free consultation to help you learn about the rights and remedies available to you, so call us now at 1-800-446-4485 or contact us online to schedule your appointment.

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