State Supreme Court Rules in Malpractice Case Regarding “Informal Conferences”

2/23/2017
The state Supreme Court recently voided a Court of Appeals’ ruling in Howard v. Svoboda, a case dealing with the “informal conference” statute that allows medical malpractice defense attorneys to speak with a plaintiff’s treating physician without taking a deposition.  

The issue began when the District Court agreed with the plaintiff/patient (Howard) to severely limit the scope of informal conferences, and ordered the defense (Dr. Svoboda) not to ask questions about the opinions of the treating physician.  The defense appealed this order.  The Minnesota Court of Appeals considered the issue, and reversed the District Court holding that the informal conference statute permits defense attorneys to ask about any information or opinions the treating physician provides.   

The plaintiffs appealed the ruling of the Court of Appeals to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled on a mostly technical aspect of the case by deciding that the Court of Appeals lacked jurisdiction/authority to reverse the original District Court decision that narrowed the scope of the informal conference. In ruling that the Court of Appeals lacked jurisdiction to consider the issue, the Supreme Court did not rule on the main issues, which were 1) what can be said during “informal discussions,” and 2) whether the district court has discretion to impose additional limits on “informal discussions.”

The MMA filed an amicus in the case because informal conferences – without restrictions – are a helpful, physician-friendly and cost-containing tool in medical malpractice defense.  Conferences take place unrecorded, and are not admissible in subsequent litigation. Defense attorneys are given the early opportunity to gather facts about the treatment provided, and to assess the adequacy of the treatment at issue. This helps separate out those cases that should be settled from those that should be defended.  

The MMA often advocates for its members in the court system by filing briefs as amicus curiae (”friend of the court”) when a case decision will have a great affect on physicians or health care in Minnesota. 

The original malpractice case is currently under appeal by the plaintiff.