On Sept. 30, 2015, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned well-established precedent and held the Alabama Medical Liability Act (“AMLA”) and its discovery provisions do not apply to claims of sexual assault.
The plaintiff, M.C., filed a lawsuit against physical therapist, Kristopher Vanderwall, alleging assault and battery relating to a 2012 physical therapy appointment. In particular, M.C. alleges that Vanderwall sexually assaulted her during this appointment and that Vanderwall has a pattern and practice of this kind of behavior. To support the latter claim, M.C. propounded interrogatories requesting information regarding two prior complaints made against Vanderwall for molestation. Vanderwall objected to the interrogatories, arguing that the AMLA specifically prohibits discovery of other acts or omissions of health-care providers.
M.C. moved to compel the interrogatory responses, and both parties sought a declaration from the trial court as to whether the lawsuit was governed by the AMLA. The trial court entered an order finding that the AMLA did not apply to lawsuit and, as result, entered a subsequent order that same day granting M.C.’s motion to compel the interrogatory responses.
Vanderwall appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and sought a writ of mandamus to challenge (1) the trial court’s interlocutory decision that general tort-law principles, rather than the AMLA governed the underlying action, and (2) the trial court’s order compelling discovery of other acts as Vanderwall argued it violated the prohibition against such discovery found in section 6-5-551 of the AMLA.
With regard to the first challenge, the Alabama Supreme Court held the writ was procedurally defective as the trial court’s declaration that the AMLA did not apply was not a “final judgment” to which mandamus relief may be sought. In other words, even if the trial court were wrong for not applying the AMLA, Vanderwall would still be able to appeal any adverse verdict. Accordingly, the writ of mandamus was denied as to Vanderwall’s first challenge.
In examining Vanderwall’s second challenge as to the trial court’s order on the motion to compel, the Court noted it would essentially have to answer the same question of whether the AMLA applies: “Whether the information M.C. requested in [the] interrogatories [. . .] pertaining to other acts allegedly committed by Vanderwall is shielded from discovery under § 6-5-551 necessarily requires us to determine whether the AMLA governs M.C.’s assault and battery claims against Vanderwall.”
Vanderwall argued that the AMLA and its discovery provisions clearly apply when the “complained of conduct allegedly occurred during the delivery of professional services.” M.C. argued that “the mere fact that she was present for physical therapy does not place her claim under the [AMLA].” Furthermore, M.C. argued that none of the alleged sexual assault occurred while Vanderwall was providing professional services.
Vanderwall relied heavily on relied on Mock v. Allen, 783 So. 2d 828 (Ala. 2000), a case that held allegations of sexual misconduct between a patient and a chiropractor were governed by the AMLA. The Court heavily examined both Mock, and it’s factually similar progeny, O’Rear v. B.H., 69 So. 3d 106 (Ala. 2011). In both cases, the Court noted the two dispositive questions were (1) did the alleged sexual assault occur within doctor’s office and/or hospital and (2) did it occur while the defendant was providing professional services? Under this assessment alone, the Court acknowledged M.C.’s claims against Vanderwall would be governed by the AMLA.
However, the Court rejected the governing rationale of Mock and O’Rear, and instead offered to following interpretation of section 6-5-551 of the AMLA:
We do not believe the legislature intended for the protections afforded under the AMLA to apply to health-care providers who are alleged to have committed acts of sexual assault; such acts do not, by any ordinary understanding, come within the ambit of “medical treatment” or “providing professional services.”
The Court essentially held that while Vanderwall’s acts occurred during the same time frame and location in which he was providing medical care, the allegations of “sexually assaulting M.C. instead of administering care for her back pain were not part of providing medical care to [her] as governed by the AMLA.” As a result, the Court abrogated the holdings of Mock and O’Rear, and denied Vanderwall’s writ of mandamus as to the trial court’s order compelling discovery of other acts.