The Limits of Clinical Records in Injury Litigation


(Update March 8, 2012 – the below reasoning was upheld by the BC Court of Appelal in reasons for judgement released today.  You can find the BC Court of Appeal’s Reasons here)
When an injury claimant attends examination for discovery or trial they are usually subjected to an extensive cross-examination with respect to matters contained in clinical records.  These records contain a host of information including dates of doctors visits, complaints made, diagnoses given, treatments recommended and the course of recovery of injuries.
Despite this volume of information clinical records do have limitations with respect to their use at trial.  Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, discussing these.
In today’s case (Edmondson v. Payer) the Plaintiff was involved in a 2005 BC motor vehicle collision.  The Plaintiff sustained various soft tissue injuries involving her neck with associated headaches.  The Defendant argued that the injuries were minor and that the Plaintiff lacked credibility.  In support of their argument the Defendant relied heavily on various entries contained in the Plaintiff’s clinical records.
Mr. Justice Smith rejected the Defendant’s argument and awarded the Plaintiff $40,000 for non-pecuniary damages (money for pain and suffeirng and loss of enjoyment of life).  In doing so the Court provided the following useful reasons addressing the use of clinical records in injury litigation:
[23] Much of the defendant’s submission on the plaintiff’s credibility flows from what is, or is not, found in the clinical records of doctors the plaintiff has seen.  It is therefore important to review the limited purposes for which clinical records are admissible.  It is easy to lose sight of those limitations in cases of this kind, where the time spent parsing a single note made by a doctor often far exceeds the length of the medical appointment that the note records…

[34]         The difficulty with statements in clinical records is that, because they are only a brief summary or paraphrase, there is no record of anything else that may have been said and which might in some way explain, expand upon or qualify a particular doctor’s note.  The plaintiff will usually have no specific recollection of what was said and, when shown the record on cross-examination, can rarely do more than agree that he or she must have said what the doctor wrote.

[35]         Further difficulties arise when a number of clinical records made over a lengthy period are being considered.  Inconsistencies are almost inevitable because few people, when asked to describe their condition on numerous occasions, will use exactly the same words or emphasis each time.  As Parrett J. said in Burke-Pietramala v. Samad, 2004 BCSC 470, at paragraph 104:

…the reports are those of a layperson going through a traumatic and difficult time and one for which she is seeing little, if any, hope for improvement. Secondly, the histories are those recorded by different doctors who may well have had different perspectives and different perceptions of what is important. … I find little surprising in the variations of the plaintiff’s history in this case, particularly given the human tendency to reconsider, review and summarize history in light of new information.

[36]         While the content of a clinical record may be evidence for some purposes, the absence of a record is not, in itself, evidence of anything.  For example, the absence of reference to a symptom in a doctor’s notes of a particular visit cannot be the sole basis for any inference about the existence or non-existence of that symptom.  At most, it indicates only that it was not the focus of discussion on that occasion.

[37]         The same applies to a complete absence of a clinical record.  Except in severe or catastrophic cases, the injury at issue is not the only thing of consequence in the plaintiff’s life.  There certainly may be cases where a plaintiff’s description of his or her symptoms is clearly inconsistent with a failure to seek medical attention, permitting the court to draw adverse conclusions about the plaintiff’s credibility.  But a plaintiff whose condition neither deteriorates nor improves is not obliged to constantly bother busy doctors with reports that nothing has changed, particularly if the plaintiff has no reason to expect the doctors will be able to offer any new or different treatment.  Similarly, a plaintiff who seeks medical attention for unrelated conditions is not obliged to recount the history of the accident and resulting injury to a doctor who is not being asked to treat that injury and has no reason to be interested in it.

[38]         The introduction of clinical records cannot be used to circumvent the requirements governing expert opinion evidence set out in Rule 11-6 of the Supreme Court Civil Rules, B.C. Reg. 168/ 2009 [Rules].  A medical diagnosis?and the reasoning that led to the diagnosis?is a matter of expert opinion. Clinical records are admissible for the fact that a diagnosis was made, but the court cannot accept the diagnosis as correct in the absence of proper opinion evidence to that effect.  Depending on the facts and issues in a particular case, the mere fact that a diagnosis was made may or may not be relevant.

[39]         Clinical records may provide the assumed facts on which an expert may offer an opinion, including diagnosis.  For example, statements made by the plaintiff and recorded in clinical records at various times may be relied on by a defence expert in concluding that the plaintiff’s current symptoms are the result of a condition that pre-dated the accident.  That does not mean that the court can itself use clinical records to arrive at a medical diagnosis in the absence of expert opinion.

[40]         Some of the defendant’s submissions must now be considered in light of these principles.

bc injury law, clinical records, clinical records at trial, credibility, Edmondson v. Payer, Mr. Justice Smith

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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