Seebold v. Prison Health Servs., Inc.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation57 A.3d 1232
PartiesMichelle SEEBOLD, Appellee v. PRISON HEALTH SERVICES, INC., Appellant.
Decision Date28 December 2012

57 A.3d 1232

Michelle SEEBOLD, Appellee

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued Sept. 13, 2011.
Decided Dec. 28, 2012.

[57 A.3d 1233]

Alan S. Gold, Gold & Ferrante, P.C., Elkins Park, for Prison Health Services, Inc.

John Jacob Hare, Carol Ann VanderWoude, Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, P.C., Philadelphia, for Appellant Amicus Curiae, PA Defense Institute.

Robert B. Hoffman, Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot, LLC, Harrisburg, for Appellant Amicus Curiae, Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Michael H. Collins, N. Randall Sees, McNerney, Page, Vanderlin & Hall, Williamsport, Heather Rose Willis, for Michelle Seebold.

George Gerasimos Rassias, Curran & Rassias, L.L.P., Media, for Appellee Amicus Curiae, PA Association of Justice.



Justice SAYLOR.

In this appeal, we consider whether a physician who treats prison inmates has a duty at common law to warn specific corrections officers that a particular inmate has a communicable disease.

[57 A.3d 1234]

I. Background

Appellee Michelle Seebold filed suit against Appellant Prison Health Services, Inc. (“PHS”), advancing a single cause of action expressly grounded on negligence theory. According to the complaint, in January 2005 PHS was providing medical services at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy pursuant to a contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”). At that time, Appellee worked as a corrections officer at the prison and was assigned to strip search its female inmates before and after they received visitors. Upon information and belief, the complaint asserted, approximately twelve such inmates were infected with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (“MRSA”), a contagious bacterial infection. Appellee also alleged that the skin condition of these inmates was “characterized by PHS as ‘spider bites.’ ” Complaint ¶ 7. As a result of Appellee's contact with the inmates, she averred, she became infected with MRSA.

Appellee contended that PHS's staff knew or should have known of the infections and owed a duty of reasonable care to “the staff and inmates at SCI Muncy to warn them of and protect them from acquiring an MRSA infection from those inmates known to be carrying the bacteria in a communicable state.” Id. ¶ 23. According to the complaint, PHS's staff breached this asserted duty by failing to: perform bacterial cultures on inmates with suspicious skin lesions suggestive of MRSA; ensure that inmates with MRSA were removed from the general prison population to prevent the spread of the disease; advise the prison staff on how to avoid acquiring MRSA from an infected inmate; and advise Appellee of precautions that she should take in strip searching inmates infected with MRSA. See id. ¶ 25. The complaint asserted that, since PHS's staff members were acting within the course and scope of their employment, liability should be imputed to PHS. Appellee requested compensation for pain and suffering, medical costs (which she noted may be subject to subrogation), and unspecified other financial losses occasioned by her injuries. See id. ¶ 27.

Appellee also filed a certificate of merit, in which her counsel attested that “the claim that [PHS] deviated from an acceptable professional standard is based solely on allegations that other licensed professionals for whom [PHS] is responsible deviated from an acceptable professional standard[.]”

PHS interposed preliminary objections asserting that PHS owed no affirmative duty of care running to Appellee as a third-party non-patient; Appellee's failure to identify specific PHS staff members or to describe their actions was inconsistent with the requirement for a plaintiff to delineate all material facts necessary to state a claim; PHS's mere employment of medical professionals did not establish an ability on its part to direct the rendering of medical services in specific physician-patient relationships; and the asserted facts failed to support the element of causation.

The common pleas court sustained PHS's preliminary objections based on the no-duty contention. Initially, the court recited that, in determining whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff, several factors are considered, including: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the actor's conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and (5) the overall public interest in the proposed solution. See Seebold v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., No. 07–00024, slip op. at 2 (C.P.Lycoming, Dec. 4, 2008) (citing Althaus v. Cohen, 562 Pa. 547, 553, 756 A.2d 1166, 1169 (2000)).

[57 A.3d 1235]

The court explained further that Appellee was asserting a duty under DiMarco v. Lynch Homes–Chester County, Inc., 525 Pa. 558, 583 A.2d 422 (1990). There, applying Section 324A of the Second Restatement of Torts, 1 the Court held that a physician owed a duty to his patient's boyfriend to warn and properly advise the patient concerning how to prevent the spread of a communicable disease to which she was exposed.2 The common pleas court found DiMarco to be distinguishable from the current matter, however, in that DiMarco involved a failure to properly advise the patient, whereas the present claim is based on the treating physician's alleged failure to directly notify (and take other affirmative measures relative to) Appellee, a third-party non-patient. See Seebold, No. 07–00024, slip op. at 3. In the parlance of the common pleas court:

The facts of DiMarco and the instant case are fundamentally distinguishable. In the case at bar, the Plaintiff, a prison guard at SCI Muncy alleges that she contracted a disease from a prison inmate and that the treating physician and prison health service entity should have given notice to Plaintiff not the patient. In DiMarco, it was the physician's failure to give certain notices to the patient herself that gave rise to the physician's duty to a third party.

* * *

What Plaintiff is asking of this Court is to interpret the Restatement (Second) and the holding of DiMarco in a way in which the Courts of this Commonwealth have never done. That is, Plaintiff wishes this Court to hold that a healthcare provider owes a duty to warn all potential third parties that could conceivably come in contact with a patient whom they have treated for a contagious or communicable disease. This Court is unwilling to traverse the uncharted waters of a health care provider's duty to third parties without a map and compass provided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or [L]egislature.

Id. at 3–4.

Appellee lodged an appeal in the Superior Court. Although she previously had represented that the obligations and failures attributed to PHS were entirely derivative from duties and breaches of its employee health care professionals, in Appellee's statement of matters complained of on appeal, she asserted that the common pleas court “erred in holding that a private corporation providing health care

[57 A.3d 1236]

services to inmates in a state correctional institution owes no duty of care to those people working in the state correctional institution.” 3

On review, the Superior Court vacated and remanded in a memorandum decision, first discussing DiMarco 's imposition of a duty upon physicians who treat a patient with a communicable disease to give proper advice to such patient to prevent spreading the disease. This duty, the court noted, is designed to protect the well-being of third persons, since the patient's health already has been compromised. See Seebold v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., No. 20 MDA 2009, 990 A.2d 66, slip op. at 7–8 (Pa.Super. Dec. 1, 2009) (quoting DiMarco, 525 Pa. at 562, 583 A.2d at 424–25). The intermediate court also discussed Troxel v. A.I. Dupont Institute, 450 Pa.Super. 71, 675 A.2d 314 (1996), in which a cause of action in favor of a third-party non-patient was found to exist where a medical doctor failed to advise the patient about the dangers of spreading her disease to the unborn children of others. 4 Although Troxel was factually distinct from DiMarco in that the physicians in Troxel gave no advice rather than erroneous advice, the Superior Court noted that the Troxel court did not find such distinction relevant. Rather, Troxel concluded, generally, that the duty undertaken by a physician treating a patient with a contagious disease extends to third persons and includes the obligation “to correctly inform the patient about the contagious nature of the disease in order to prevent its spread to those who are within the foreseeable orbit of risk of harm.” Troxel, 450 Pa.Super. at 88, 675 A.2d at 322;see also F.D.P. v. Ferrara, 804 A.2d 1221 (Pa.Super.2002) (explaining that “the duty is imposed because ‘it is imperative that the physician give his or her patient the proper advice about preventing the spread of the disease’ ”), quoted in Seebold, No. 20 MDA 2009, slip op. at 11.

The Superior Court proceeded to discuss its concerns, and those of this Court,

[57 A.3d 1237]

about expanding liabilities of healthcare providers to third-party non-patients. It recognized, for example, that, although this Court has held that a therapist has a duty to warn his patient's intended victim of the patient's stated intent to kill the victim, see Emerich v. Phila. Ctr. for Human Dev., Inc., 554 Pa. 209, 720 A.2d 1032 (1998), the Court was careful to limit that duty to instances involving an immediate threat of serious bodily injury to an identified, or readily identifiable, individual. See id. at 227, 720 A.2d at 1041. Furthermore, the intermediate court quoted the following commentary offered in a concurring opinion in Emerich by then-Chief Justice Flaherty, which was later endorsed by the full Court:

I write to express my concern that this is yet another extension of liability in an already too...

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