Hospitals Protected From Disclosing Documents In Medical Malpractice Cases
The 1st District Court of Appeal entered an order in a medical malpractice case involving disclosure of certain medical records. The decision was entered in the case Southern Baptist Hospital of Florida, Inc. v. Charles, 1D15-0109. The question before the appeals court was whether the trial court wrongly ordered the hospital to produce certain documents to the plaintiff in violation of federal law. Florida’s Constitution (Article 10, section 25), which is also known as Amendment 7, became law in 2004 after it was adopted by Florida voters. It gives a right to “have access to any records made or received in the course of business by a healthcare facility or provider relating to any adverse medical incident” (quoting Art. X, §25(a), Fla. Const.). The adverse medical incidents covered by the amendment are broad, and extend to basically any situation in which a health care facility or provider could have caused the injury or death of one of its patients.
By contrast, Congress passed the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2005 (42 U.S.C. §299b-21 et seq.). This Act created a system for healthcare providers to share data regarding treatment errors in a voluntary, non-punitive, and confidential manner. The Act creates a method for providers to share information about errors in medical treatment without fear of being punished for the errors. The shared information is protected by privilege and confidentiality rules under the Act. It maintains its privileged and confidential status unless or until it is removed from the data-reporting system by the provider.
Specifics of the Case
In the case at hand, the patient’s family filed a lawsuit against the treating hospital alleging that she suffered from a severe neurological injury due to the negligence of the hospital. The family made three discovery requests under Florida’s Amendment 7, requesting documents related to the patient’s adverse medical treatment and documents related to any of the physicians working for the hospital beginning three years prior to the patient’s treatment. The hospital withheld some occurrence reports, citing privilege and confidentiality designations under the Act.
Ultimately, the court found that documents in question were not discoverable due to their privilege and confidentiality protections under the Act. The opinion notes that federal law preempts state law under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution (Art. VI, cl. 2). It specifically notes that two of the three categories of preemption apply to this particular federal law. The first preemption category is express preemption, which occurs when the federal law explicitly states that it preempts state law. The Act contains language that expressly deems documents like the occurrence reports to be privileged, notwithstanding any other law. The second category is implied preemption, where it is not possible to abide by both the state law and the federal law. Because the Act provides protection for privileged documents while state law commands that all documents must be produced, it is not possible to comply with both Florida law and the Act in this case. Thus, the appeals court ruled that the hospital is not required to produce the occurrence reports to the patient’s family.
At PWD, we have championed patients’ rights to access adverse incident reports. This has been a constitutionally guaranteed right since 2004, when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment allowing access to these reports.
Since 2003, the Florida Supreme Court has shot down every argument that hospitals and insurance carriers have conjured up to thwart citizens’ right of access to this information. Those arguments have included Federal preemption based on other federal statutes.
This new novel argument that the appellate court bought will be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. Hopefully, freedom of access to these reports shall prevail once again.
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