The Florida Supreme Court is set to consider how far defendants in personal injury suits can pry into possible referral relationships between doctors and attorneys, a move that defense attorneys say is necessary to peel back inflated costs for medical care in these cases. They agreed to hear the appeal after Worley made a valid argument that there was a conflict regarding whether a plaintiff must provide the production of information protected by attorney-client privilege.
The state’s highest court will hear oral arguments in a slip-and-fall case brought by Heather Worley, who tripped and fell in the parking lot of Central Florida YMCA and was allegedly referred to a doctor by her attorneys at Morgan & Morgan.
Heather Worley injured herself after falling in a YMCA parking lot. After she fell in the YMCA’s parking lot, Worley twice went to the emergency room of Florida Hospital East Orlando. Following her retention of Morgan & Morgan, various doctors from Sea Spine, Underwood and Sanctuary treated her and the firm filed a negligence suit against YMCA on Worley’s behalf, seeking to recover damages that include the costs of her treatment from those providers. According to court documents, the case began as a “relatively routine” trip-and-fall incident, but that Morgan & Morgan has “tenaciously opposed” all attempts by the YMCA to learn how Worley became a patient of the doctors who treated her. The YMCA had said it has reason to believe that there’s a “cozy agreement” between Morgan & Morgan and the treating physicians due to the unusually high cost of Worley’s medical bills. During her deposition, the YMCA asked Worley how she came to see the specialists and if she was referred to a doctor by her lawyers. Her counsel objected on grounds of attorney-client privilege. Counsel for the YMCA successfully had the Court order Worley to turn over any documents relating to a connection between her counsel at Morgan & Morgan PA and physicians at Sea Spine Orthopedic Institute, Underwood Surgery Center and Sanctuary Surgical & Anesthesia Center. Worley appealed the order. In May, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals refused to overturn the trial court’s order because, in the court’s opinion, the YMCA had adequately shown that such a relationship could exist. The appellate court also said that because Worley said that no other doctors, friends or family members referred her to the doctors who treated her, the court must ask Worley herself. Worley then appealed it to the Florida Supreme Court. Her argument was based on attorney-client privilege. She viewed the order requiring her to produce any information of a possible referral relationship between the doctors who treated her and her lawyers, as eroding the attorney-client privilege. In her petition to the state’s high court to review the order, Worley argued that the appellate court’s ruling conflicted with precedent set in another state appellate court, saying that 1992 ruling held that the question of whether a lawyer referred his client to a particular treating physician was protected by the attorney-client privilege. Worley added that the fact that a witness’s testimony may be impeached by the confidential communications between a party and her attorney doesn’t give the opposing party the right to have those communications disclosed, regardless of need or undue hardship.