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Violation of Nursing Home Patient Privacy And Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Nursing home patients are entitled to a number of considerations ethical, moral and legal considerations with regard to the standards of their care.

Our nursing home abuse lawyers know that one of these primary rights is the right to privacy. This includes the right to keep and use personal belongings (so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights, health or safety of others), and it also includes the right to ensure the details of your medical care is kept private and confidential.

A breach is not only a violation of one of your other primary rights – respect and dignity – it might also represent grounds on which to sue the nursing home and/or the staffer.

The fact is, nursing staff probably always shared private patient information with others to some degree. But such violations of trust have become more pervasive with the advent of smart phones and social media that allow individuals to instantaneously snap and share photos, observations and general musings.

It’s also likely we hear a lot more about these cases because such violations are now more traceable than ever.

That’s what happened recently in the case of Doe v. Guthrie Clinic, Ltd., where a question was certified from a federal appellate court to the New York State Court of Appeals, regarding corporate medical liability for the unauthorized disclosure by a non-physician who was acting outside of the scope of her employment.

(Though this case did not involve a nursing home patient, the general principals are still applicable.)

According to court records, the plaintiff (Doe) was being treated for a sexually-transmitted disease at a private medical facility. A registered nurse employed at that facility recognized the man as the boyfriend of her sister-in-law. The nurse, who was not in charge of his care, looked up his medical information, saw the condition for which he was receiving treatment and texted her sister-in-law to inform her.

Those messages were then forwarded to the patient, who interpreted the messages as making fun of his condition.

Five days later, the patient called to complain about the nurse’s actions. He met with an administrator and the nurse was fired.

Afterward, the president of the clinic sent a letter to the patient conceding there had been an unauthorized disclosure of his private health information, added that appropriate disciplinary action had been taken and that steps had been taken to prevent such action from occurring in the future.

The patient then filed a lawsuit against the clinic, alleging:
— Common law breach of fiduciary duty to maintain personal health care information.
— Breach of contract.
— Negligent hiring, training, retention and/or supervision of employees.
— Negligent infliction of emotional distress.
— Intentional infliction of emotional distress.
— Breach of duty to maintain confidentiality of patients, as required under state and local health codes.

The defendant clinic then filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the federal district court. This dismissal was appealed on the first five counts. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of four of those five counts, but reserved action on the claim of fiduciary duty. The appellate court then certified a question to the state court, asking whether unauthorized disclosure of medical information by a non-physician health care provider who acts outside of the scope of her employment can be used to sue a medical corporation for breach of fiduciary duty.

The state court answered : No.

The court reasoned that while generally, a hospital or medical facility can be held vicariously liable for wrongful acts by employees, that’s only true in cases where the acts were committed in furtherance of the employer’s business and/or within the scope of employment. The court further noted that a medical provider’s duty to safeguard patient medical information is limited to risks that are foreseeable and actions within the scope of employment.

However, in a dissenting opinion, several state justices noted their opinion that a medical corporation can and should be held liable in these kinds of tort cases where the facility has failed to take appropriate measures to protect patient privacy or to properly train workers on patient privacy. An argument for negligent supervision also should not be miscounted in these cases, though, as the justices pointed out in this case, the federal court had already decided on that issue.

Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Doe v. Guthrie Clinic, Ltd., Jan. 9, 2014, New York State Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Reporting Nursing Home Abuse in South Florida, Dec. 19, 2014, Cooper City Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog

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