Tag: Dr. Sovio

ICBC Insurance Benefits, Independent Medical Exams and Witness Immunity


Further to my many previous posts discussing Independent Medical Exams in the context of ICBC Injury Claims, reasons for judgement were released today highlighting a very interesting issue; the ability to sue an Independent Medical Examiner.
When a person is seeking medical benefits from ICBC under their own policy of insurance (Part 7 Benefits) ICBC has the right to send that person for a “medical examination“.  ICBC gets this power from s. 99 of the Insurance (Vehicle) Regulation which holds as follows:

Medical examination

99 (1)  An insured who makes a claim under this Part shall allow a medical practitioner, dentist, physiotherapist or chiropractor selected by the corporation, at the expense of the corporation, to examine the insured as often as it requires.

(2)  The corporation is not liable to an insured who, to the prejudice of the corporation, fails to comply with this section.

When ICBC obtains a medical exam under s. 99 they often base their decision of what Part 7 benefits to pay based on the physician’s recommendations.

For a variety of reasons ICBC tends to use a handful of doctors over and over again for these independent examinations.  In turn the business of independent medical exams is quite profitable for some BC doctors.

It is not uncommon for a medical examiner to author a report to ICBC which contradicts the opinions of a person’s treating physicians.  When this happens ICBC sometimes cuts off benefits from an insured even when the treating physicians feel further funding of therapy is appropriate.  When ICBC and an insured differ as to what benefits should be paid the insured can sue ICBC and the Court’s can offer a binding resolution.  What about the independent medical examiners?  Can they be sued?  Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court addressing this very interesting issue.

In today’s case (Mund v. Sovio) the Plaintiff was injured in a 2007 motor vehicle collision.  The Plaintiff applied to ICBC for Part 7 Benefits.  In the course of processing the request for benefits ICBC sent the Plaintiff to Dr. Sovio for a medical examination under section 99.    Dr. Sovio authored an opinion which was apparently harmful to the Plaintiff’s interests in which he stated that:

a) the Plaintiff was “staying at home, not doing any exercise and appears to be content to carry on in this fashion”;

b) “there is nothing to suggest that” the Plaintiff “should be disabled to this degree” and the Plaintiff’s “medical care appears to be somewhat disjointed”;

c) “legal matters” were interfering with the Plaintiff’s case; and

d) the Plaintiff “has a history of [being] off work for an extended period of time in the past and seems content to continue with this role of disability at this time”.

After receiving this report the Plaintiff and ICBC could not agree as to what PArt 7 benefits ought to be paid.  The Plaintiff responded in a unique way, he sued Dr. Sovio directly arguing that Dr. Sovio failed to assess his injuries in “an objective, fair and even handed manner.“.

Dr. Sovio applied to dismiss the lawsuit arguing, despite any consequences the report may have had between the Plaintiff and ICBC with respect to Part 7 benefits, that he owed the Plaintiff “no duty in contract, no duty of insurer-insured good faith and no duty of care in negligence”.  Dr. Sovio went further and argued that even if there was such a duty that the lawsuit had to be dismissed because he had “witness immunity“.

Madam Justice Hyslop of the BC Supreme Court sided with Dr. Sovio’s arguments and dismissed the Plaintiff’s lawsuit.  In doing so the Court made the following critical findings:

[34] Dr. Sovio’s role and relationship with Mr. Mund cannot be greater than that of ICBC.  It is not within the power of Dr. Sovio to determine whether Mr. Mund receives Part 7 benefits.  The power and the exercise of that power is that of ICBC. ..

[37] I find that Dr. Sovio is not in a fiduciary relationship, nor in a doctor/patient relationship, nor is one created between Mr. Mund and Dr. Sovio as a result of the medical examination by Dr. Sovio of Mr. Mund…

[48] In British Columbia, ICBC may choose, pursuant to s. 99, the medical practitioner.  The sole purpose of the s. 99 examination is that the medical practitioner examine the insured.  It is entirely at the discretion of ICBC when, and if, there is an examination.  There is no requirement that the medical practitioner provide a plan of care for the insured such as the Ontario DAC.  The doctor’s opinion is not binding on anyone; neither the insured nor the insurer.  ICBC may use, for different claims, for different insureds, the same medical practitioner time and time again.  ICBC may reject the medical practitioner’s opinion in whole or in part.  It is simply not a process in which the insured participates in other than to present himself or herself to the medical practitioner designated by ICBC…

[71] In Howatt v. Klassen, 2005 CanLll 11191, Dr. Klassen was requested by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to examine Dr. Howatt.  That was the extent of the relationship between Dr. Klassen and the plaintiff, Dr. Howatt.  The court concluded that Dr. Klassen acted as an agent and for an appointee of the college.  In dismissing Dr. Howatt’s action, the court stated:

[11]      In any event, I agree with the submission that Dr. Klassen is protected by the common law doctrine of witness immunity, which protects individuals from civil suit based on their status as witnesses or potential witnesses at judicial proceedings.  The case law establishes that this protection is absolute so that even allegations of bad faith are insufficient to exclude the application of the witness immunity doctrine.

[72] A similar situation occurred in N. (M.) v. Forberg, [2009] A.J. No. 253.  The court found a witness immunity applied to a psychologist who counselled children involved in a custody and access dispute.  In proceedings between the parents of the children, the mother of the children asked the psychologist to give an opinion.  The opinion was adverse to the plaintiff father, and the court found the psychologist owed no duty of care, no fiduciary duty to the father and concluded that witness immunity applied, stating the following at para. 57:

If professionals in the field of health care are exposed to the threat of law suits when they intervene on behalf of persons to whom they clearly owe a duty and have determined are vulnerable individuals, there will be a chilling effect on the willingness of health care providers to deliver their necessary assistance to the Court, and to be full and frank in their opinions when doing so.

[73] Similarly, Dr. Sovio, in providing assessments pursuant to s. 99, must not be exposed to the threat of lawsuits for delivering his opinion, even if those opinions or actions are contrary to those of Mr. Mund…

Dr. Sovio is not a public official, but an expert retained by ICBC.  His position is similar to that of Dr. Klassen in Howatt and Ms. Froberg. …

[79] For these reasons, Mr. Mund’s ASC is struck out and the claim dismissed for failure to disclose a reasonable cause of action.

$95,000 Non-Pecuniary Damages for Chronic Pain and PTSD – Dr. Sovio Scrutinized

Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, New Westminster Registry, awarding a Plaintiff just over $300,000 in total damages as a result of injuries and loss sustained in 2 BC Car Crashes.
In today’s case (Roberts v. Scribner) the Plaintiff was involved in two collisions, the first in 2005, the second in 2006.  She was not at fault for either crash.  The trial focused solely on the issue of the value of the Plaintiff’s ICBC Injury Claims.
The Plaintiff’s injuries affected her neck, mid back, low back, left shoulder collar bone and caused headaches.  She also suffered from depression and PTSD.
In assessing non-pecuniary loss (money for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life) at $95,000 Madam Justice Bruce made the following findings about the Plaintiff’s injuries:

[173] I am satisfied that the soft tissues injuries Ms. Roberts suffered to her back, and to a lesser extent, her neck, have caused her substantial pain and disability since November 2005 when the first accident occurred. After the second accident she further aggravated her physical injuries, which developed into a chronic pain condition. In addition, Ms. Roberts’ psychological illnesses have aggravated her physical pain and suffering and have clearly contributed to the cycle of continuing pain. I note parenthetically that there is no dispute that Ms. Roberts’ PTSD symptoms and depression stem from the trauma of the accidents. Even the defence specialist, Dr. Smith, was of this view. At p. 5 of his report Dr. Smith says:

The most common sequel of motor vehicle accidents, particularly rear-end-type accidents, is the development of soft tissue injuries. If the soft tissue injury pain goes on for a number of months, individuals develop poor sleep and then are at risk for depression. I believe this is exactly what has happened with Ms. Roberts as a result of the two accidents.

[174] All of the specialists who examined Ms. Roberts have guarded prognosis for her complete recovery from the soft tissue injuries given the length of time they have persisted despite her tremendous efforts to rehabilitate herself. While Dr. Shah opined that some improvement could be expected in the future, he was unable to say at what point this might occur and to what extent Ms. Roberts’ condition would improve. Certainly there is some hope that different therapies may assist Ms. Roberts; however, her physical condition has plateaued since mid 2006 and she has not improved substantially since that time…

[177] The injuries caused by the accidents have also adversely affected Ms. Roberts’ ability to enjoy the recreational activities she loved to do before the collisions. She has attempted to return to snowboarding, but has not been able to tolerate more than one or two hours before the pain makes her stop for the day. Ms. Roberts has given up competitive horseback riding and the other sports she enjoyed before the accidents. Hiking and camping are also activities that she now finds too difficult to do because of the back pain she experiences when walking on an incline and sleeping on the ground. The physical and psychological injuries have also affected her social life; she is not able to sit for long periods at friends’ homes or in a movie theatre and thus spends most of her time at home seeking out a comfortable position. Her sleeplessness has affected her relationship with Mr. Harvey. They now have to sleep in separate rooms.

[178] Ms. Roberts has also undergone a complete personality change due to the injuries caused by the accident. The collateral witnesses testified about how fun- loving and comical Ms. Roberts was before the accidents and how depressed, sad and serious she has become since these events occurred. She does not enjoy life anymore and appears to function physically like a far older woman, moving slowly and stiffly and constantly attempting to find a comfortable position.

[179] Mr. Pakulak tested Ms. Roberts’ functional capacity overall, and in respect of several different movements that may be required for work, household chores, and recreational activities. There is no doubt that Ms. Roberts in many respects is functioning at a high level. However, it is also apparent that she has a reduced capacity in several functions, some of which are critical in her line of work. While the fact that she is unable to lift over 30 lbs does not render her disabled from performing the work of a graphic designer, Ms. Roberts’ reduced capacity for sitting and other movements related to working at a computer desk adversely affect her ability to carry out these duties efficiently and over an extended period. It is also important to consider that while Ms. Roberts may appear to be able bodied compared to many people, it is the changes in her life that are relevant to an assessment of damages. Before the accidents, Ms. Roberts was a youthful, extremely fit and active woman who had no difficulty whatsoever managing a full-time job, a busy social life, and an active recreational and exercise program. The functional limitations that now govern Ms. Roberts’ activities clearly represent a substantial change for her. Thus the impact on her ability to enjoy life cannot be underestimated. Moreover, in light of the guarded medical prognosis for her complete recovery, it is likely that these functional restrictions may, to some extent, continue to govern her life for the foreseeable future….

[181] Turning to the issue of quantum, it is well established that each case must be decided on its own facts. The authorities cited by the parties are useful as a guide in regard  to quantum; however, each particular case has unique factors that must be considered when awarding damages for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. In this regard, I found the authorities cited by Ms. Roberts, and in particular, the circumstances in Gosal, more closely mirror the facts in this case than the authorities cited by the defendants. Given my conclusions regarding the nature of Ms. Roberts’ injuries, the impact these injuries have had on her life, the length of time she has continued to suffer, and the guarded prognosis for her complete recovery, I find an award of $95,000 is appropriate in the circumstances.

An interesting side note to this judgement was the Court’s critical commentary of Dr. Sovio.  ICBC hired this doctor to conduct an ‘independent medical examination‘ of the Plaintiff.  As I’ve previously pointed out there are a handful of doctors who do a lot of these independent examinations for ICBC and it is not unusual for some of the reports generated by some of these physicians to contradict the opinions of treating doctors.  That indeed was the case in today’s judgement and Madam Justice Bruce pointed this out and gave ‘little weight‘ to Dr. Sovio’s opinions.  The Court made the following critical comments:

[131] Bearing in mind the anomaly of Dr. Sovio’s report, his lack of independent recollection of the interview, and the failure to cross examine Ms. Roberts on what is recorded in his report, I find little weight can be placed on his recorded history of her complaints and symptoms. It is also important to note that Dr. Sovio did not record Ms. Roberts’ exact words. Thus there may be errors of interpretation in his assessment of her pain levels, as well as her history of past and current symptoms…

While Dr. Sovio has come to a conclusion that Ms. Roberts is no longer suffering from her soft tissue injuries, I find his opinion is clearly inconsistent with the considered opinions of a variety of different specialists. As such, I find little weight should be placed on his assessment.

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If you would like further information or require assistance, please get in touch.

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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