Dysart v. Werth

Decision Date18 October 2001
Docket NumberSD24027
Citation61 S.W.3d 293
PartiesIris Mae Dysart (Gulley), Appellant, v. Claude J. Werth, M.D., Respondent. 24027 Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Appeal From: Circuit Court of Camden County, Hon. B.C. Drumm, Jr., Special Judge

Counsel for Appellant: Donald T. Taylor

Counsel for Respondent: William A. Lynch, Steven Martin Aaron and Shirley Ward Keeler

Opinion Summary: None

Shrum, P.J. and Montgomery, J., concur

Robert S. Barney, Chief Judge

Iris Mae Dysart (Gulley), ("Appellant") appeals the judgment of the Circuit Court of Camden County granting a motion for directed verdict filed by Claude J. Werth, M.D., ("Respondent") following evidence presented in Appellant's lawsuit against Respondent for false imprisonment and medical malpractice.1 Appellant raises three points of error, discussed below.

Appellant was previously married to Earnest Gulley for about 43 years. In 1990 Appellant began counseling with Dr. Kenneth Wilcox ("Dr. Wilcox"), a psychologist, after experiencing marital problems. In the course of her treatment, Dr. Wilcox advised Appellant that she would benefit from treatment with a psychiatrist. Appellant began treatment with Respondent, a licensed psychiatrist, in July of 1993. She informed Respondent that she believed the source of her problems was that she was not happy with her husband. In the course of Appellant's treatment, Respondent prescribed several medications to help combat her depression. Appellant saw Respondent on a recurring basis from July of 1993 until her last session with him on October 31, 1994. Prior to that time, on July 29, 1994, Appellant complained to Respondent that she had suspected her husband of having an affair and did not want her husband to be included in any of her sessions with Respondent.

On the evening of November 21, 1994, Appellant and Mr. Gulley had a heated argument concerning the couple's finances. Eventually, the Camden County Sheriff's Office responded to the residence and Mr. Gulley left the residence to stay elsewhere. The next morning, Appellant went to the Camden County Courthouse to seek an ex parte order of protection from Mr. Gulley. She filled out the paperwork and was advised to return that afternoon.

In the meantime, Mr. Gulley called Respondent to explain his version of what had happened the previous night. Respondent testified that Mr. Gulley had told him that there had been a "big brew-ha-ha . . .[p]olice cars had arrived. It sounded like things were out of hand." This was not the first conversation the two had regarding Appellant, as Mr. Gulley had contacted Respondent three other times in the days preceding November 22, 1994. There is no record of what was said during these conversations, additionally, either the Sheriff or a Sheriff's deputy had conversations with Respondent relating to Appellant, a fact acknowledged in Appellant's brief.

When Mr. Gulley spoke to Respondent on the morning of November 22, 1994, he informed Respondent that he did not know where Appellant was and that a .38 caliber pistol was missing from the residence. At that point, Respondent advised Mr. Gulley to come to Respondent's office and pick up a letter which Respondent had addressed to the probate court. It read as follows:

It is [Respondent's] opinion, that of her husband, and the Camden County Sheriff's Department that [Appellant] is suffering from Major Depressive Disorder complicated by paranoid delusional thinking. There is no question in my mind that she is potentially injurious to herself and more importantly to her husband.

I am requesting that she be committed to a psychiatric facility for no less than 30 days.

Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at any time.

Respondent had signed the letter and had it notarized. Respondent did not make any attempt to contact Appellant that morning and had not spoken with her since her last visit on October 31, 1994.

After receiving this letter from Respondent, Mr. Gulley returned to the probate court and filled out an Application for Detention, Evaluation and Treatment ("application"). See § 632.305, set out in pertinent part, infra.2 In the application presented to the probate court, Mr. Gulley set out that Appellant had threatened to kill him and threatened to kill herself, and listed the names of two lay witnesses as persons knowing the parties. The docket entry reflects that the "clerk confirmed [a] letter from [Respondent]." The probate court issued its Order for Detention, Evaluation and Treatment, directing Appellant to be placed in the custody of the Director of the Department of Mental Health for a 96-hour observation period. See § 632.305.2. Appellant, who had returned to the courthouse, was taken into custody by the Camden County Sheriff's Office and transported to the Mid-Missouri Health Center ("health center") in Columbia, Missouri.

The morning after arriving at the health center, Appellant was seen by Steven Soltys, M.D. ("Dr. Soltys"), the medical director of the health center at that time. Upon speaking with Appellant, Dr. Soltys did not find her to be "psychotic at that time" but wanted to keep Appellant so that the health center could observe Appellant and verify the events as she had related them. The following day was Thanksgiving and the next three days included a holiday and the weekend, therefore Appellant was not seen again by Dr. Soltys until the following Monday. By noon of that day, Dr. Soltys concluded that Appellant was well enough to be released and opined that Appellant was inappropriately committed.

In her first point, Appellant asserts that the trial court erred in granting Respondent's motion for directed verdict in that sufficient evidence was presented to establish a submissible case on the claim of false imprisonment. In point two, Appellant sets out that the trial court "erred in ruling that the physician/patient privilege of [RSMo] 632.425 . . . was waived, and did not allow [Respondent] to present her case concerning [Respondent's] breach of this confidentiality . . . [per RSMo 491.060] and no statutory exception occurred . . . ." In her third point, Appellant asseverates that the trial court erred in granting Respondent's motion for directed verdict because Appellant presented sufficient evidence to establish a submissible case of medical malpractice against Respondent.

In reviewing the trial court's granting of a motion for directed verdict, this Court reviews the evidence to determine whether a submissible case was made by Appellant. McNear v. Rhoades, 992 S.W.2d 877, 884 (Mo.App. 1999). "In determining whether a submissible case is made, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the claimant's case and disregard all evidence to the contrary." Id. Each element that is required to establish liability on the part of Respondent must be supported by substantial evidence, which is "competent evidence from which a trier of fact can reasonably decide the case." Id. A directed verdict is proper if there is not substantial evidence to support one of the elements of a cause of action. Id. "However, a directed verdict is a drastic action and should only be granted if reasonable persons could not differ as to the outcome of the case." Id.

Appellant alleges in her first point that the trial court erred in sustaining Respondent's motion for directed verdict because Appellant presented sufficient evidence to establish a submissible case of false imprisonment. Appellant contends that Respondent's letter requesting that Appellant "be committed to a psychiatric facility for no less than 30 days" was improper and provided the basis for her unlawful detention.

False imprisonment occurs when one individual confines another without legal justification. Bramon v. U-Haul, Inc., 945 S.W.2d 676, 680 (Mo.App. 1997); Desai v. SSM Health Care, 865 S.W.2d 833, 836 (Mo.App. 1993). The elements of false imprisonment are the detention of an individual against their will coupled with the unlawfulness of the detention. Bramon, 945 S.W.2d at 680. Liability attaches where the evidence shows that the defendant to a suit instigated, caused, or procured the illegal detention. Desai, 865 S.W.2d at 836.

In her brief, Appellant maintains that the actions of Respondent in speaking with Mr. Gulley about her condition and writing the letter "instigated and/or encouraged [Appellant's] arrest and confinement . . . ." She, therefore, argues that she "established a submissible case that [Respondent] caused her to be falsely imprisoned." We do not agree.

We initially take note that it was Mr. Gulley who filed the application seeking Appellant's commitment for mental evaluation.3 In support of his application it was Mr. Gulley, not Respondent, who recited that Appellant had threatened to kill him and threatened to kill herself. It was Mr. Gulley who had initiated the discussion of his spouse's purported problems with Respondent, which, in turn led to Respondent's letter. It was the probate court that entered the commitment order. The procedures provided by section 632.305 were expressly followed. In this respect the commitment order was completely legal. Furthermore, Appellant has failed to establish, to our satisfaction, that Respondent's actions instigated, caused, or procured her detention. Under similar circumstances in Ussery v. Haynes, 127 S.W.2d 410 (Mo. 1939), it was held that liability did not attach to a doctor that testified or provided information concerning an individual, but who did not take part in the actual commitment, unless a claim is made that the doctor provided false or biased information regarding that individual. Id. at 417. Here, Appellant has not demonstrated that Respondent provided false or biased information or otherwise was not acting in good faith when he wrote the letter. We cannot say that the trial court erred in entering a directed verdict on Appellant's count of false imprisonment against Respo...

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