Court Appointed Psychologist Evaluation In a Burns Injury Case

In Coates v. Whittington, 758 S.W.2d 749, 751 (Tex. 1988), Mrs. Coates was injured when she inadvertently sprayed her arm with the defendant's oven cleaning product while cleaning her stove. She suffered severe second degree burns and permanent scarring on her left forearm as a result of the incident. Coates brought a products liability action against the defendant, seeking damages for mental anguish. The defendant moved to compel Coates to submit to a mental examination, claiming that her mental anguish was pre-existing and that Coates had put her mental condition in controversy by pleading mental anguish damages. Additionally, the defendant claimed that there was good cause for the mental examination because Coates stated that she experienced "depression and general mental problems at the time she used the oven cleaner." Id. at 750. The trial court ordered Coates to submit to a mental examination by a court-appointed psychologist. On mandamus, the supreme court reviewed whether the defendant had shown both prongs of the test to compel a mental examination. The Coates court warned that "sweeping examinations of a party who has not affirmatively put his mental condition in issue may not be routinely ordered simply because the party brings a personal injury action." See id. at 751 (citing Schlagenhauf v. Holder, 379 U.S. 104, 121, 13 L. Ed. 2d 152, 85 S. Ct. 234 (1964)). A mental injury that warrants psychological evaluation is distinguishable from emotional distress that accompanies a personal injury action. Id. The two prongs of the test are not met "by mere conclusory allegations of the pleadings--nor by mere relevance to the case." Id. (quoting Schlagenhauf, 379 U.S. at 118). The defendant attempted to meet the "in controversy" requirement by contending that Coates' prior problems affected her mental state at the time she used the oven cleaner and that as a result good cause existed for compelling a mental examination. Id. In evaluating whether Coates' mental condition was in controversy, the court noted that Coates asserted she has suffered the type of emotional distress that typically accompanies a second degree burn and permanent scarring. . . . She described her mental anguish as feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness because the scar is ugly and noticeable in public. She is not alleging a permanent mental injury nor any deep seated emotional disturbance or psychiatric problem. Mrs. Coates' mental anguish claim is, therefore, for the emotional pain, torment, and suffering that a plaintiff who has been burned and scarred would experience in all reasonable probability. . . . Further, the record reflects that Mrs. Coates has not sought any type of psychiatric treatment as a result of the incident and, equally important, does not propose to offer psychiatric or psychological testimony to prove her mental anguish at trial. Coates, 758 S.W.2d at 752. The Coates court held "Mrs. Coates' prior problems are clearly peripheral to the issues in this case, and, consequently, they are not 'in controversy.'" Id. Her prior problems and complaints of depression "are distinct from the mental anguish she claims as a result of her injury." Id. Noting that a tortfeasor takes a plaintiff as he finds her, "regardless of Coates' personal problems at the time of the incident with the oven cleaner, she is entitled to recover the damages resulting from the incident conditioned as [she] was at the time of the injury." Coates, 758 S.W.2d at 753 (quoting Driess v. Friederick, 73 Tex. 460, 11 S.W. 493, 494 (Tex. 1889)) (emphasis added). The good cause and in controversy requirements are necessarily related. Id. A court may compel a plaintiff to submit to a mental examination only if the plaintiff asserts a mental injury that exceeds the common emotional reaction to an injury or loss. Coates, 758 S.W.2d at 753. The requirement of good cause for a compulsory mental examination may be satisfied only when the movant satisfies three elements. First, the examination must be relevant to issues that are genuinely in controversy in the case and it must be shown that the examination will produce, or is likely to lead to, relevant evidence. Id. Second, a party must show a reasonable nexus between the condition in controversy and the examination sought. Id. Finally, a movant must demonstrate that it is not possible to obtain the desired information through means that are less intrusive than a compelled examination. Id. The Coates court determined that the defendant had not shown that the information it sought could not be obtained by other discovery techniques. The Coates court also noted that if, however, Coates intended to use expert medical testimony to prove her alleged mental condition, then her condition might be placed in controversy, and the defendant would be able to attempt to show good cause for an examination. The Coates court ultimately held that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering Coates to submit to a mental examination and conditionally granted Coates' petition for writ of mandamus.