Sawyer v. Midelfort, No. 97-1969

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
PartiesDelores SAWYER, special administrator of the estate of Nancy K. Anneatra, Thomas Sawyer and Delores Sawyer, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. H. Berit MIDELFORT, M.D. and Celia Lausted, Defendants-Respondents-Petitioners, ABC Insurance Company and DEF Insurance Company, Defendants.
Docket NumberNo. 97-1969
Decision Date29 June 1999

Page 423

595 N.W.2d 423
Delores SAWYER, special administrator of the estate of Nancy
K. Anneatra, Thomas Sawyer and Delores Sawyer,
Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
H. Berit MIDELFORT, M.D. and Celia Lausted,
Defendants-Respondents-Petitioners,
ABC Insurance Company and DEF Insurance Company, Defendants.
No. 97-1969.
Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
Argued Dec. 2, 1998.
Decided June 29, 1999.

Page 426

For the defendants-respondents-petitioners there were briefs by Kay Nord Hunt, Thomas R. Jacobson, Brent R. Johnson and Lommen, Nelson, Cole & Stageberg, P.A., Hudson; Thomas J. Misfeldt, James W. Flory and Misfeldt, Stark, Richie & Wickstrom, Eau Claire and oral argument by Kary Nord Hunt.

For the plaintiffs-appellants there was a brief by William Smoler, Gregory P. Seibold and Murphy & Desmond, S.C., Madison and oral argument by William Smoler & Gregory P. Seibold.

Amicus curiae was filed by Mark L. Adams and State Medical Society of Wisconsin and Jeffrey J. Kassel, David E. McFarland and Lafollette & Sinykin, all of Madison for the State Medical Society of Wisconsin.

Amicus curiae was filed by David D. Relles and Relles, Meeker & Borns, Madison; Thomas A. Pavlinic, Annapolis, MD for The False memory Syndrome Foundation.

¶1 DONALD W. STEINMETZ, J.

The petitioners seek review of a published decision of the court of appeals, Sawyer v. Midelfort, 217 Wis.2d 795, 579 N.W.2d 268 (Ct.App.1998), which affirmed in part and reversed in part a judgment of the Circuit Court for Eau Claire County, the Honorable Eric J. Wahl. The circuit court granted summary judgment ordering the dismissal of the plaintiffs' professional negligence claims against the defendants Dr. H. Berit Midelfort (Midelfort) and Celia Lausted (Lausted) and their negligent infliction of emotional distress claim against Lausted. The circuit court concluded that the professional negligence claims brought by Delores and Thomas Sawyer (the Sawyers) failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted, and, in the alternative, were barred by the statute of limitations. 1 The circuit court also concluded that the claim brought by Nancy Anneatra's Estate (the Estate) was barred on grounds of public policy. The court of appeals reversed as to each of these rulings. 2

¶2 The following issues are presented for our review:

¶3 (1) May the parents of an adult child maintain third-party professional negligence actions wherein they allege that the defendants' negligent therapy and psychiatric care resulted in the implanting and reinforcing of false memories of sexual abuse in their child?

Page 427

¶4 (2) Where a patient has not sustained physical injury, do claims of professional negligence on behalf of the patient's estate for "pain, suffering and disability, medical, psychiatric and psychological expense and loss of enjoyment of life," survive under Wis. Stat. § 895.01 and/or are such claims otherwise barred on public policy grounds?

¶5 (3) Does Wisconsin's discovery rule extend the statute of limitations for the Sawyers' claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress sustained as a result of a meeting that took place in 1985?

¶6 (4) Does the doctrine of laches bar claims that the defendants engaged in negligent therapy and psychiatric care resulting in the implanting of false memories of sexual abuse in a patient where the patient's parents and the adult patient's Estate brought the claims after the patient's death?

Background

¶7 Nancy Anneatra (Anneatra), the woman who is at the center of this lawsuit but is now dead, was born in 1958 to Delores and Thomas Sawyer. From the record we discover that from quite a young age, Anneatra suffered a variety of psychiatric problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, and severe depression, and that on at least one occasion prior to meeting either of the defendants in this action, she required psychiatric hospitalization.

¶8 As this case comes before us on the motion for summary judgment and prior to the completion of discovery, it is unclear at this time when Anneatra began having memories of being sexually abused by her father, whether she always had such memories, or whether her first memories were repressed and brought forward only a short time before she met Lausted. What is clear is that Anneatra first met Lausted at a women's shelter in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in late 1983. As evidenced by a diary entry in the autumn of 1983, when she met Lausted, Anneatra had already had some memory of being sexually abused by her father, the plaintiff Thomas Sawyer. And although the record does not disclose when Anneatra began to receive mental health treatment regarding her memories of sexual abuse, the parties agree that prior to receiving such treatment from Lausted in June 1984, she had been receiving mental health treatment from others, including Dr. Kathryn Bemmann, who is not a defendant in this case.

¶9 In June 1984, Lausted, who at the time was an unlicensed therapist, began to treat Anneatra. In July 1985, the Sawyers first learned that Anneatra believed that she had been sexually abused by her father when, together with Dr. Bemmann and Lausted, Anneatra confronted her parents in Dr. Bemmann's office. It was at this meeting that Anneatra accused both of physically abusing her during her childhood, and accused her father of sexually abusing her. The Sawyers deny that any abuse occurred.

¶10 Shortly after this confrontation, Anneatra discontinued all contacts with her parents and changed her name from Sawyer to Anneatra to make it more difficult for her parents to find her. Anneatra maintained a post office box through which her parents could, and did on occasion, reach her, but apparently neither Anneatra nor the Sawyers contacted the other directly during the next ten years. Anneatra's sister served as a conduit through which the Sawyers from time to time would obtain information about Anneatra.

¶11 In 1988, Anneatra filed a lawsuit in Minnesota against her parents seeking civil damages for harm caused by their abuse. Her complaint included allegations that as a result of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, she had to undergo an abortion at age 13 and that her mother had arranged for the abortion. The complaint also indicated that Anneatra had repressed her memory of the abuse until October 1983, when she became aware of the abuse as a result of counseling and treatment. It appears that neither party to this lawsuit is certain how far

Page 428

the Minnesota lawsuit progressed, although they agree that it was dismissed before serious efforts toward discovery were made.

¶12 Anneatra continued to receive therapy from Lausted throughout her life. After Dr. Bemmann terminated her treatment of Anneatra in 1987, Lausted referred Anneatra to the defendant, Midelfort, a psychiatrist, who participated in Anneatra's care through December of 1994. Midelfort treated Anneatra more than 50 times during this period, administering and monitoring Anneatra's medications, providing psychiatric evaluations, and offering Anneatra support for the purpose of maintaining her psychiatric stability. During the course of her treatment with Midelfort, Anneatra told Midelfort that she was sexually abused by her father, paternal grandfather, uncle, brother and two priests. She also told Midelfort that an aunt and cousins were also involved, either as sexual perpetrators themselves or as observers of the sexual perpetration of others.

¶13 Anneatra died of cancer in early 1995 and the Sawyers did not learn of her death until perhaps six months thereafter. Following the discovery of her daughter's death, Dolores Sawyer successfully obtained an order appointing herself special administrator of Anneatra's estate. As administrator of the estate, Dolores Sawyer was successful in gaining access to her daughter's medical records.

¶14 Subsequently, the instant lawsuit was filed by Delores and Thomas Sawyer in their individual capacities, and Delores Sawyer as special administrator of Anneatra's estate. In their complaint, the Sawyers allege that Anneatra developed false memories of sexual and physical abuse by her father, and physical abuse by her mother, as a result of Lausted's and Midelfort's negligent treatment. They claim that the defendants' negligence caused them "past and future pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life."

¶15 Specifically, as to their professional negligence claim against Lausted, the Sawyers allege that she failed to properly diagnose and treat Anneatra's problems, misdirected Anneatra's therapy to recover false memories of sexual abuse through the negligent performance of hypnosis and by failing to recognize problems created by such hypnosis, negligently handled the transference and countertransference phenomenon existing in the therapeutic relationship, implanted and reinforced false memories in Anneatra, and failed to recognize that the memories which were being created in Anneatra were false memories.

¶16 The Sawyers' allegations against Dr. Midelfort include the same acts of negligence as alleged against Lausted, with the exception of the claim of negligent handling of the transference and countertransference phenomenon, and with the additional allegation that Midelfort failed to properly supervise Lausted's treatment of Anneatra.

¶17 In a separate claim, the Sawyers allege that Lausted's negligence caused them emotional distress, their injuries arising from the 1985 meeting at which Anneatra made her accusations.

¶18 The Estate's claim alleges that Anneatra sustained personal injuries and seeks damages for "pain, suffering, and disability; medical, psychiatric and psychological expenses; and loss of enjoyment of life" as a result of Lausted's and Midelfort's failure to properly diagnose her psychological problems and their negligent treatment of those problems.

¶19 The defendants filed motions for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs' third-party professional...

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117 practice notes
  • State ex rel. Coleman v. McCaughtry, No. 2004AP548-W.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • May 18, 2006
    ...Bank, 70 Wis.2d 1041, 1053, 236 N.W.2d 266 (1975)). More recently we applied this same three-element analysis in Sawyer v. Midelfort, 227 Wis.2d 124, 159, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999). In each case, the first element is attributed to inaction of the claimant and the second and third elements to th......
  • John Doe 67C v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, No. 2003AP1416
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • July 13, 2005
    ...for injuries they sustained in 1985, when they alleged that their daughter made false allegations that her parents sexually abused her. 227 Wis. 2d 124, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999). The plaintiffs did not file their suit alleging negligence against the therapist until 1996 when they obtained acce......
  • Roberts v. Salmi, Docket No. 316068.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • December 18, 2014
    ...549, 692 A.2d 781 (1997) ; Bird v. WCW, 868 S.W.2d 767 (Tex., 1994).9 See Webb, 121 Wash.App. 336, 88 P.3d 417; Sawyer v. Midelfort, 227 Wis.2d 124, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999) ; Hungerford, 143 N.H. 208, 722 A.2d 478; Montoya v. Bebensee, 761 P.2d 285 (Colo.App., 1988).1 473 Mich. 63, 701 N.W.2d......
  • Doe v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 2005 WI 123 (Wis. 7/13/2005), No. 2003AP1416.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • July 13, 2005
    ...for injuries they sustained in 1985, when they alleged that their daughter made false allegations that her parents sexually abused her. 227 Wis. 2d 124, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999). The plaintiffs did not file their suit alleging negligence against the therapist until 1996 when they obtained acce......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
117 cases
  • State ex rel. Coleman v. McCaughtry, No. 2004AP548-W.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • May 18, 2006
    ...Bank, 70 Wis.2d 1041, 1053, 236 N.W.2d 266 (1975)). More recently we applied this same three-element analysis in Sawyer v. Midelfort, 227 Wis.2d 124, 159, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999). In each case, the first element is attributed to inaction of the claimant and the second and third elements to th......
  • John Doe 67C v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, No. 2003AP1416
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • July 13, 2005
    ...for injuries they sustained in 1985, when they alleged that their daughter made false allegations that her parents sexually abused her. 227 Wis. 2d 124, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999). The plaintiffs did not file their suit alleging negligence against the therapist until 1996 when they obtained acce......
  • Roberts v. Salmi, Docket No. 316068.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • December 18, 2014
    ...549, 692 A.2d 781 (1997) ; Bird v. WCW, 868 S.W.2d 767 (Tex., 1994).9 See Webb, 121 Wash.App. 336, 88 P.3d 417; Sawyer v. Midelfort, 227 Wis.2d 124, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999) ; Hungerford, 143 N.H. 208, 722 A.2d 478; Montoya v. Bebensee, 761 P.2d 285 (Colo.App., 1988).1 473 Mich. 63, 701 N.W.2d......
  • Doe v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 2005 WI 123 (Wis. 7/13/2005), No. 2003AP1416.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • July 13, 2005
    ...for injuries they sustained in 1985, when they alleged that their daughter made false allegations that her parents sexually abused her. 227 Wis. 2d 124, 595 N.W.2d 423 (1999). The plaintiffs did not file their suit alleging negligence against the therapist until 1996 when they obtained acce......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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