Legal background

Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the injured party for lost wages, costs, and damages to reputation. Compensatory damages existed in this case, as Mr. P was demoted, and his pay was reduced as a result of the impermissible disclosure of his protected health information. Punitive damages, however, are not designed to make the injured party whole, but rather to punish the wrong-doer, and deter such behavior in the future.

In the state where this action took place, the law states that punitive damages “may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.”

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The court noted that the patient never asked for anyone to be notified, never consented to having his chart shown to his supervisor, never agreed to having his supervisor come to his hospital room, and never agreed to have his clinician (Ms. C) discuss his health with his supervising officer. Further, the court noted that the supervising officer was not there with a subpoena or due to an official investigation.

The court refused to dismiss the request for punitive damages, holding that if the jury ultimately found that the defendants’ actions were not merely negligent, but intentional, then punitive damages, on top of compensatory damages, could be awarded.

The case was then remanded for a jury trial, but a settlement was reached between the parties before the case could go to trial.

Protecting yourself

A patient’s privacy is of paramount importance. Increasingly, privacy violations are being taken very seriously, particularly since 2003, when the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights began enforcing the HIPAA Privacy Rule. Aside from the HIPAA violation aspect, however, is the additional threat of a civil lawsuit, as happened in this case.

Mrs. D should not have divulged information about a patient to her neighbor, regardless of whether she thought the two might know each other. Ms. C should not have brought the supervising officer to Mr. P’s room without getting Mr. P’s consent, and she should not have discussed her patient’s health status with Mr. P’s supervising officer, regardless of their relationship. Furthermore, Mrs. D and Ms. C should never have shown a patient’s health records to someone else without Mr. P’s express consent.

In this case, the patient never consented to the disclosures of any of his private medical information, nor was a subpoena or official legal document presented to compel hospital personnel to disclose the information or to allow access to the patient’s chart. The clinicians made those poor choices on their own.

Patient records are private and confidential and should be treated as such. Divulging patient information can result in damage not just to a patient’s reputation, but to a practitioner’s as well.

Ann W. Latner, JD, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.