URGENT REPORT: Civil Claims Against Utilization Review Physicians
The exclusive remedy rule limits an employee's remedies against an employer for injuries sustained during the course of the employment. The purpose of the exclusive remedy rule is to protect the employer's side of the compensation bargain. Under the compensation bargain, the employer assumes liability for industrial personal injury or death without regard to fault in exchange for limitations on the amount of that liability. The employee is given relatively swift and certain payment of benefits to cure or relieve the effects of industrial injury without having to prove fault but, in exchange, gives up the wider range of damages potentially available in tort.
Labor Code § 3852, however, expressly provides that a workers' compensation claim "does not affect his or her claim or right of action for all damages resulting from the injury or death against any person other than the employer." Therefore, although the exclusive remedy provisions of the Labor Code restrict civil actions against a negligent employer, the exclusive remedy rule does not preclude the employee from suing a third party whose conduct was a proximate cause of the injury.
The exclusive remedy rule has been extended to insurers and claims administrators as the alter ego of the employer. (See Marsh & McLennan, Inc. v. Superior Court (1989) 49 Cal. 3d 1; Charles J. Vacanti, M.D., Inc. v. State Comp. Ins. Fund (2001) 24 Cal. 4th 800.) But, physicians within the workers' compensation system have not enjoyed the same protections.
In appropriate circumstances, a treating physician may be sued for medical malpractice for rendering negligent medical treatment for an injured worker. (See Duprey v. Shane (1952) 39 Cal. 2d 781; Sturtevant v. County of Monterey (1991) 228 Cal. App. 3d 758).) Furthermore, even though a medical-legal physician may not be sued for providing an opinion (Keene v. Wiggins (1977) 69 Cal. App. 3d 308), a medical-legal physician may be sued for negligence or professional malpractice for injuries incurred during the examination itself. (Mero v. Sadoff (1995) 31 Cal. App. 4th 1466.)
One of the issues that has arisen within the workers' compensation system is whether utilization review physicians may be sued for negligence. Unlike other physicians, utilization review physicians do not physically evaluate injured workers; they assess the medical necessity of a request for treatment by reviewing medical records submitted with the request and determine whether the treatment is consistent with the Medical Treatment Utilization Schedule or other evidence-based guidelines.
One of the issues that has arisen within the workers' compensation system is whether utilization review physicians may be sued for negligence. Unlike other physicians, utilization review physicians do not physically evaluate injured workers; they assess the medical necessity of a request for treatment by reviewing medical records submitted with the request and determine whether the treatment is consistent with the Medical Treatment Utilization Schedule (MTUS) or other evidence-based guidelines.
In King v. CompPartners, Inc., the California Supreme Court held workers' compensation law provides the exclusive remedy for an employee who alleges injuries caused by a utilization reviewer's denial of medical treatment. In that case, an employee suffered a series of four seizures after a utilization reviewer denied a request for medication. The employee and his wife filed a civil tort claim against the reviewer and others alleging they caused him additional injuries by denying medications prescribed by his treating physician without authorizing a weaning regimen or warning him of the possible side effects of abruptly ceasing the medication. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal's decision that the employee could potentially could assert a civil tort claim against a utilization review doctor.
It explained the Workers' Compensation Act (WCA) exclusivity provisions preempt not only those causes of action premised on a compensable workplace injury, but also those causes of action premised on injuries collateral to or derivative of such an injury. The Court explained the utilization review provisions of the WCA govern not only the substance of a utilization review decision, whether based on medical necessity or otherwise, but also the content of the responses communicating the decision. It concluded the harm plaintiffs alleged was collateral to and derivative of that industrial injury and arose within the scope of the employee's employment for purposes of the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy.
The Supreme Court noted that that while the WCA preserves the right of employees to sue third parties, it held that workers’ compensation exclusivity preempts tort claims against certain persons and entities hired by employers, and this included utilization reviewers hired to carry out the employer's statutory claims processing functions. It explained that in performing their statutory functions, utilization reviewers stand in the shoes of employers: they perform utilization review on behalf of employers, to discharge the employers’ own responsibilities to their employees.
The Supreme Court added that utilization reviewers are tasked with making judgments on a limited set of documents pursuant to defined criteria and subject to further review only through statutorily specified procedures. It believed that permitting plaintiffs to bring tort suits against utilization reviewers, in the same manner as they might bring tort suits against treating physicians, would subject utilization reviewers to a second—and perhaps competing—set of obligations rooted in tort rather than statute.
The Supreme Court, however, noted that workers' compensation exclusivity does not bar tort remedies for acts that fall outside the risks encompassed within the compensation bargain. It believed that in other cases, a plaintiff could argue that a utilization reviewer's conduct exceeded the bounds of its role and that workers' compensation exclusivity should not apply. But, because the acts alleged in that case did not suggest the defendants stepped outside of the utilization review role contemplated by statute, the plaintiffs' claims were pre-empted.
Therefore, under this decision, utilization review physicians will be generally covered by the exclusive remedy rule. Injured workers may not sue them in civil court for their decisions to deny or modify requested treatment, even if the decision was mistakenly made. Injured workers may only seek civil remedies against utilization review physician where they engage in extreme and outrageous conduct and in effect step outside of their normal roles in the workers’ compensation system. Given that utilization reviewers must follow specified procedures in carrying out their duties, it will be very difficult for injured workers to make such claims.
On a final note, the Supreme Court believed the Legislature enacted sufficient safeguards to protect employees against abuse in the utilization review process such as rules precluding discontinuation of care, administrative penalties, professional discipline, and employers being responsible for paying benefits to workers who suffer injuries as a result of the utilization review process. However, in one concurring opinion, Justice Liu questioned whether the utilization review process was working as intended, and whether the utilization review requirements are enough to prevent similar injuries in the future. In another concurring opinion, Justice Cuéllar explained that the Court’s understanding of the utilization review statute’s purpose may have differed if the Legislature had failed to provide any safeguards, incentives, or remedies, and added that those safeguards may not be set at optimal level. Both concurring justices stated that the Legislature may wish to examine whether the existing safeguards were sufficient.
Accordingly, there is no doubt that deference was given to the Legislature’s plenary power over the workers’ compensation system. As it stands, injured workers are generally limited to seeking workers’ compensation remedies for any adverse decisions by a utilization review doctor. Any penalties or sanctions against a utilization review doctor or utilization review organization will be limited to those set out in the statutes or administrative regulations. Any additional penalties or sanctions will need to be adopted by the Legislature, not the courts.
By Sure Log exclusively for Sullivan on Comp.
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