Indiana Appellate Court Holds Negligent Dissemination Of Confidential Medical Information Was Ordinary Negligence, Not Medical Malpractice

The Court of Appeals of Indiana (“Indiana Appellate Court”) held in its opinion filed on May 6, 2019 that “the MMA [Indiana Medical Malpractice Act] is not applicable to claims involving negligent dissemination of protected health information and thus the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to [the defendants].”

The Underlying Facts

On June 5, 2015, the plaintiff (“G.F.”) received in-patient treatment at the defendant hospital for pneumonia-related symptoms. While G.F. was being visited by a co-worker, the defendant physician entered her room and, with the co-worker in the room, informed G.F. that his “CD4 count is low . . . you need to see your infectious disease doctor as soon as you can!” Because G.F.’s visitor had a prior family experience with HIV, she immediately understood the implication of the defendant physician’s communication to G.F.

As soon as the defendant physician exited the room, G.F.’s co-worker voiced her understanding of the defendant physician’s statement. As her step-brother had died from HIV/AIDS, she recognized the inferences of discussing CD4 counts with an infectious disease doctor. Four days later, the defendant physician telephoned G.F. to apologize for what he said in front of G.F.’s co-worker (the defendant physician had assumed the co-worker was G.F.’s fiancée).

The plaintiff alleged in his Indiana medical malpractice lawsuit that as a result of what the co-worker had learned on June 5, 2015, the co-worker has severed all ties with G.F. Although G.F. and his co-worker had been good friends prior to the incident, she now no longer calls or visits G.F., she does not return G.F.’s calls, and she even refuses to acknowledge his existence at work. The plaintiff further alleged that “the word is out” at his workplace, resulting in other coworkers now “change[ing] their path when they see [G.F.] heading in their directions.”

On January 6, 2018, G.F. filed an action for declaratory judgment against the defendants, seeking a declaration of law that his claims fell outside the ambit of the MMA. On October 3, 2018, the trial court issued its findings of fact and conclusions thereon, denying G.F.’s motion for declaratory judgment and concluding in pertinent part that: “[G.F.’s] claim involves health care that was provided by a physician, working in his professional capacity as a provider of medical services, to a patient, within the confines of a hospital, in furtherance and promotion of [G.F.’s] health … because [G.F.] has willingly and voluntarily subjected himself to the MMA the [c]ourt thereby rejects his contention that his claim is not governed by the MMA, finds that it is one of medical malpractice, governed by the requirements and restrictions of the MMA, and thereby DENIES [G.F.’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment in its entirety.”

Indiana Appellate Court Opinion

The Indiana Appellate Court stated in order to fall within the purview of the MMA, a provider’s conduct must be undertaken in the interest of, or for the benefit of, the patient’s health. In other words, the conduct must be curative or salutary in nature or effect for the person claiming patient status under the MMA. The curative or salutary conduct must be directed toward the person to whom the provider owes a duty of care. Conversely, the MMA does not apply to conduct unrelated to the promotion of a patient’s health or the provider’s exercise of profession expertise, skill, or judgment. A medical malpractice claim under the MMA exists only when the substance of the claim involves a causal connection between the negligence and the nature of the provider/patient relationship.

The Indiana Appellate Court further stated that general negligence can occur during the course of ongoing medical treatment if the negligent act itself does not involve curative or salutary conduct, the promotion of the patient’s health, or the exercise of professional expertise, skill, or judgment. A case sounds in ordinary negligence rather than medical negligence where the factual issues are capable of resolution by a jury without application of the standard of care prevalent in the local medical community. By contrast a claim falls under the MMA where there is a causal connection between the conduct complained of and the nature of the patient-health care provider relationship.

In a previous case, the Indiana Appellate Court had held that claims alleging negligent dissemination or communication of patients’ confidential health information against a health care provider were not governed by the MMA. The Indiana Appellate Court explained in that case that the primary purpose of the MMA was to address difficulties health care providers were experiencing in obtaining professional liability insurance coverage. In the previous case, the Indiana Appellate Court stated that the general claim asserted by the plaintiffs sounded in common law negligence and the purpose of the MMA would not be served by extending its provisions to the claim under consideration.

The Indiana Appellate Court stated that in the present case, G.F. does not contend that the defendant physician’s statement led to an inaccurate diagnosis or improper treatment. Rather, in his Complaint, G.F. articulated his claims as to “whether the [MMA] applies to claims involving: the violation of a patient’s medical confidentiality; [and] the
negligent or intentional disclosure of protected health information[.]” The fact that the defendant physician’s statement was uttered in a facility that provides health care does not, by itself, make G.F.’s claim fall within the purview of the MMA. Nor does the fact that G.F. was a patient of the defendant physician create such a claim. Instead, the test is based on the provider’s behavior or practices while acting in his professional capacity as a provider of medical services.

The Indiana Appellate Court held: “Based on these parameters, we cannot conclude that G.F.’s claims are within the boundaries of the MMA.”

Source G.F. v. St. Catherine Hospital, Inc., Court of Appeals Case No. 18A-PL-2460.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 16th, 2019 at 5:30 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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