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Estate of Chen v. Ye

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 10, 2019

Estate of Brian Chen et al.
Lingting Ye et al.

          Kent County Superior Court, KC 16-1239 Jeffrey A. Lanphear Associate Justice

          For Plaintiffs: Ronald J. Resmini, Esq., Andrew O. Resmini, Esq.

          For Defendants: Mark P. Dolan, Esq., Mark P. Dolan, Jr.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Francis X. Flaherty Associate Justice

         The plaintiffs, Brooke Chen, Wei Chen, Yifan Shuai, and the Estate of Brian Chen, seek review of an order entered in the Superior Court that quashed the oral deposition of M.Y., the minor daughter of the defendants, Lingting Ye and Yan Sun.[1]Before this Court, the plaintiffs argue, inter alia, that the hearing justice erred because, instead of prohibiting the oral deposition outright, he should have allowed it to continue under reasonable restrictions that would limit any potential harm to the minor child, who suffers from generalized anxiety, while still preserving the plaintiffs' right to relevant discovery. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we quash the order of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         On June 18, 2016, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, seven-year-old Brian Chen tragically drowned in a swimming pool while he was attending a party at defendants' home. Although the parties agree that there were several adult guests present at the time, it is in dispute whether any adult was present outside near the pool area when the young boy drowned. The defendants point to decedent's father's deposition testimony that that there were ten to fifteen adults in the backyard and at least one child swimming in the pool when decedent's father left Brian in the backyard. The defendants further allege that there has been no evidence presented that would indicate that there were any children in the pool at the time when the young boy was found floating in the water. On the other hand, although plaintiffs agree that there were several adult guests present on the premises, they nonetheless contend that none of them were near the pool when the drowning incident occurred. Rather, they allege that defendants' then ten-year-old daughter, M.Y., and Brian were both in the pool area when the tragedy transpired.

         In December 2016, plaintiffs filed a wrongful death action in Kent County Superior Court against defendants.[2] In their complaint, plaintiffs alleged that defendants' negligence caused the death of their son based on theories of attractive nuisance, failure to warn, failure to supervise, failure to secure the pool area, and premises liability. In addition to damages for wrongful death, plaintiffs also sought damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress, loss of consortium on their own behalf, and loss of consortium on their daughter's behalf.

         In June 2017, plaintiffs sought to depose M.Y., defendants' minor daughter. The defendants filed a motion to quash the notice of deposition, arguing that M.Y. had mental health issues that both preceded and were as a result of her friend's death, and that she was actively in treatment for her mental health issues. To support their motion, defendants attached a letter from M.Y.'s psychotherapist, Aleta Johnson, LICSW, who indicated that M.Y. had been in treatment for generalized anxiety for several years, and that, since decedent's death, her symptoms had become exacerbated. Ms. Johnson also reported that, following Brian's death, M.Y. had "begun to also show signs of depression, [her] emotional regulation has been more difficult, and her distress has been more pronounced." The therapist recommended that M.Y. not be deposed because it would "certainly worsen her mental health, and may have negative and lasting consequences to her condition." The defendants further claimed that there was no reason to depose M.Y. because there were other guests at the party who were outside at the time of the incident.

         The plaintiffs objected to defendants' motion to quash, arguing that M.Y. may well have been the sole eyewitness to the tragedy and that they "should be allowed to seek deposition testimony from what they consider a material witness who possesses information that is reasonably calculated to lead to relevant and discoverable evidence." The plaintiffs believed that M.Y.'s testimony would be important, noting that Brian's father had testified at his deposition that M.Y. had shouted "I'm sorry" immediately after the incident.

         A justice of the Superior Court conducted a hearing on the discovery motion. After hearing arguments from both parties, the hearing justice at first decided that he would not stop the deposition from going forward or quash the subpoena, but "reserve[d] to the defendant[s] the right to stop the deposition from going forward at any time[.]" The defendants then suggested that the deposition be accomplished by means of written questions because, according to defendants, this would be less traumatizing for the child "instead of having the child go to a law office, sit down with a stenographer, with lawyers all around her."

         The plaintiffs did not agree. They argued that the answers would not be prepared by the child and the "honesty and that spontaneity that the youth tend to deliver" would be lost through "interrogatories which will be guided by adults and by counsel[.]" The hearing justice observed that "written deposition questions are provided for under the rule[, ]" but he nonetheless reserved his decision.

         After the parties filed post-hearing memoranda, the hearing justice issued a written order. The hearing justice first noted that "[a] mental health professional [h]as indicated the deposition would worsen the mental health of the child[, ]" and he therefore ordered that the notice of oral deposition be quashed. The court also ordered that a deposition on written questions was "allowed in accord with the rules of civil procedure[, ]" and required counsel to "draft age appropriate questions and avoid questions designed to 'ramp up' the emotions." Furthermore, the order stated that "[t]he witness shall not be asked about her counseling or any mental health treatment at this time[, ]" and he required defense counsel to submit, every six months from the date of the order until the case resolved, a statement from a mental health professional indicating whether M.Y. was fit to be deposed. The court also reserved the right to review any questions to which objections were raised and to modify the order at any time.

         The plaintiffs filed a petition for issuance of a writ of certiorari with this Court in August 2017; that petition was granted by this Court in December 2017.[3] In February 2018, plaintiffs filed a motion with this Court for a limited remand to depose C.Y., who is M.Y.'s younger brother; the limited remand was granted. The defendants then objected in Superior Court to C.Y.'s deposition based on another report by Ms. Johnson, eerily consistent with her report regarding M.Y., that C.Y. should not be deposed because he was also being treated and that his condition might be compromised by a deposition.[4]

         In their briefs to this Court, plaintiffs contend that, in July 2018, they deposed the mother of C.Y. and M.Y. and, according to plaintiffs, she testified that both C.Y. and M.Y. had been in the pool with Brian and some other minor children. The plaintiffs also aver that she also testified that, shortly thereafter, the children left Brian unattended at or in the pool just before he drowned. In that same month, plaintiffs issued a deposition subpoena duces tecum for Ms. Johnson, requiring her to appear and produce all records pertaining to the treatment of several of her patients, including C.Y. and M.Y. Not surprisingly, defendants filed a motion to quash that subpoena as well, and that motion was granted by the Superior Court, without prejudice, subject to our decision on the petition before us at this time.


         Standard of Review

         "It is well settled that 'our review of a case on certiorari is limited to an examination of the record to determine if an error of law has been committed.'" Sandy Point Farms, Inc. v. Sandy Point Village, LLC, 200 A.3d 659, 662 (R.I. 2019) (brackets omitted) (quoting DeCurtis v. Visconti, Boren & Campbell, Ltd., 152 A.3d 413, 420-21 (R.I. 2017)). "In conducting such a review we do not weigh the evidence on certiorari, but only conduct our review to examine questions of law raised in the petition." Id. (brackets omitted) (quoting Cashman Equipment Corporation, Inc. v. Cardi Corporation, Inc., 139 A.3d 379, 381 (R.I. 2016)). "Like questions of statutory construction, the interpretation of court rules of procedure is a legal question for the court." Plante v. Stack, 109 A.3d 846, 853 (R.I. 2015) (quoting McDonough v. McDonough, 962 A.2d 47, 54 (R.I. 2009)). "However, 'in granting or denying discovery motions, a Superior Court justice has broad discretion,' which 'this Court ...

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