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The Disordered and Discredited Plaintiff: Psychiatric Evidence in Civil Litigation

Deirdre M. Smith

University of Maine School of Law

January 31, 2010

Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, p. 749, 2010

This Article closely examines civil defendants' use of evidence of a plaintiff's alleged current or prior psychiatric diagnosis or treatment by analyzing and critiquing the three primary rationales offered in support of the relevancy of such evidence: to suggest an alternative or underlying cause of the plaintiff's alleged psychological injuries; to impeach the plaintiff's credibility by asserting that a mental illness interferes with her ability to recount or to perceive events accurately; and to reveal certain propensities that inform how the plaintiff likely acted with respect to the events at issue in the litigation. I note that, while attaching a label of mental disorder can be a powerful means to discredit a person, its role as trial evidence goes largely unexamined, unquestioned, and unregulated by courts. Few courts carefully consider whether evidence of a plaintiff's mental illness is truly probative of the issues for which it is purportedly offered. I explain that evidence of a plaintiff's psychiatric history poses a significant risk of unfair prejudice to the plaintiff in light of the persistent and pervasive stigmatizing effects of psychiatric diagnoses. Regardless of the relevancy theory advanced by defendants in support of admissibility, fact finders likely use such evidence improperly to discount a plaintiff's credibility and to conclude that the plaintiff possesses certain behavioral propensities that weigh in favor of a finding for the defendant. I conclude by urging courts facing admissibility questions concerning such evidence to closely scrutinize the purported relevancy of the evidence and to exercise their discretion to guard against factual findings that are ultimately traceable to the stigmatizing effects of mental illness.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 74

Keywords: psychiatry, evidence, mental illness, stigma, credibility

JEL Classification: K41

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Date posted: May 2, 2009 ; Last revised: March 4, 2010

Suggested Citation

Smith, Deirdre M., The Disordered and Discredited Plaintiff: Psychiatric Evidence in Civil Litigation (January 31, 2010). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, p. 749, 2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1397710

Contact Information

Deirdre M. Smith (Contact Author)
University of Maine School of Law ( email )
246 Deering Avenue
Portland, ME 04102
United States
207-780-4370 (Phone)
207-780-4541 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://mainelaw.maine.edu/faculty/profiles/smith.html
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