In its opinion filed on December 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of North Carolina (“Supreme Court”) held that the defendant hospital was not shielded from providing the medical malpractice plaintiff with the results of its internal investigation into an operating room fire that seriously injured the plaintiff. Specifically, the Supreme Court stated that section 131E-95 of the North Carolina General Statutes that protects from disclosure “[t]he proceedings of a medical review committee, the records and materials it produces and the materials it considers” did not apply in this particular case because the defendant hospital failed to demonstrate the existence of a medical review committee within the meaning of the statute.
The Underlying Facts
On September 17, 2010, the plaintiff went to the defendant hospital for surgery to remove a possible basal cell carcinoma from her face. Surgical drapes were placed on the plaintiff’s face during the surgery. The plaintiff was administered supplemental oxygen through the use of a face mask during the procedure. The plaintiff alleged that the supplemental oxygen was permitted to build up under the surgical drapes and was ignited when the surgeon used an electrocautery device to stop bleeding. The resulting surgical fire caused first and second degree burns, resulting in the plaintiff suffering permanent injuries and scars, for which she sought damages for medical negligence.
The defendants denied that they committed medical malpractice yet they refused to produce relevant documents that they contended were shielded from production pursuant to section 131E-95. The plaintiff had requested to be provided the “Quality Care Control Reports,” notes taken by the defendant hospital’s risk manager, and a document the hospital titled, “Root Cause Analysis Report.” The defendant hospital stated that it established a Root Cause Analysis Team after the plaintiff was injured as a result of the surgical fire, which they argued was a medical review committee pursuant to section 131E-76(5), and therefore the requested documents were shielded from production.
The lower appellate court (the Court of Appeals) had held that the trial court was correct in its ruling that section 131E-95 did not apply because the defendants had not shown that the withheld documents were part of a medical review committee’s proceedings, were produced by a medical review committee, or were considered by a medical review committee as required by the statute.
The Supreme Court noted that the North Carolina statute defines a medical review committee as “any of the following committees formed for the purpose of evaluating the quality, cost of, or necessity for hospitalization or health care, including medical staff credentialing: … c. A committee of a hospital or hospital system, if created by the governing board or medical staff of the hospital or system or operating under written procedures adopted by the governing board or medical staff of the hospital or system …”
The Supreme Court stated that the party asserting the privilege has the burden to demonstrate each of its essential elements and cannot meet this burden by mere conclusory assertions: “[n]ecessarily, to establish the applicability of the definition in subdivision (c), the evidence must set forth either how the committee was “created” or how the “written procedures” it “operat[es] under” were “adopted.””
The Supreme Court held: “Based upon the evidence in the record, we are unable to conclude that the RCA Team constitutes a medical review committee pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 131E-76(5). As a result, the trial court did not err by concluding that the QCC Reports, Maynard’s notes, and the RCA Report are not protected by N.C.G.S. § 131E-95(b).”
Source Hammond v. Saini, No. 492PA13.
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