Clinic Not Liable For Nurse Telling Sister About Boyfriend's STD, High Court Rules

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Wikimedia Commons
New York State Court of Appeals in Albany.
In July 2010, a man entered the Guthrie Clinic in Coning, New York to receive treatment for a sexually transmitted disease. As it happened, a nurse at the clinic knew the man, identified only as "John Doe" in court documents. Doe was the boyfriend of the nurse's sister-in-law.

So the nurse texted her sister-in-law to inform her that Doe had an STD. The sister-in-law then forwarded the message to Doe, who filed a complaint with the clinic. Guthrie acknowledged the misconduct and fired the nurse. Doe sued the Guthrie Clinic, charging that the institution is liable for the disclosure of his personal information.

Last week, however, the state's highest court ruled against Doe, clearing Guthrie of legal liability. The clinic should not be held responsible for a worker's action that "is not within the scope of employment," the New York State Court of Appeals stated in a majority decision.

See Also: High Court Upholds Upstate Judge Glen George's Dismissal for Favoring Friends in Court

The nurse was motivated by "personal reasons" that had nothing to do with Doe's treatment and care, the majority noted. As a result, the clinic could not have been expected to prevent her misconduct.

"A medical corporation's duty of safekeeping a patient's confidential medical information is limited to those risks that are reasonably foreseeable and to actions within the scope of employment," wrote Judge Eugene Pigott, speaking for the six-justice majority.

Holding a clinic liable for "any disclosure by an employee... is unnecessary and against precedent," Pigott continued, explaining that an institution could still be found liable if it had failed to establish policies and procedures aimed at maintaining patient confidentiality.

See Also: High Court Vacates Upstate Rape Conviction Because of Confusion Over What Defines "Lack of Consent"

Judge Jenny Rivera, the sole dissenter, countered that a medical establishment should have higher standards for protecting patients in an era when unauthorized disclosures can spread quickly. It should be held liable, she argued, "for its own failure to prevent breaches of confidentiality by employees who act outside the scope of their employment."

"The ease with which confidential patient information can now spread through personal digital devices and across social networks demands a strong legal regime to protect a patient's confidentiality," she wrote. "Societal interest in maintaining patient privacy in medical records is served through a robust tort system, responsive to the realities of the ease of disclosure."

Next: the text of the court's decision.


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18 comments
coco07840
coco07840

I understand her wanting to tell her sister-in-law, but she should have talked the guy into telling her instead. This is a big problem - when people keep an STD status to themselves. It's difficult to tell someone but it has to be done. This is why a lot of people like to date other people who also have STDs, because they know the person will understand. But, how to find that person? It's not like you can just walk around a bar and ask people, so that's why so many people use dating sites like Positive Singles where everyone has an STD. Maybe that's where this guy will be going, after the sister-in-law dumps him. Honesty is the best policy, dude.

stellaswan45
stellaswan45

After learning about my condition, I honestly felt like my life was over. I came across ___ HerpesWoo dot COM ___ and read all the personal stories and found that there are regular people, just like me, who are dealing with the same situation. I found
the love of my life all because of my condition and the website. It’s funny how life works out sometimes. I wish everyone the best!

Jeffrey Lerman
Jeffrey Lerman

I have no problem with banning cell phones but the point is they shouldn't have to. Medical staff are professionals and even something as juicy as this shouldn't become an exception. This is the one that was caught. How many aren't? It's very easy for someone to lose their livelihood if medical info is leaked. Would it still be ok if the info was that the patient was HIV+? In an example we encountered with one of Cindy's co-workers, he was admitted to the hospital after having a minor stroke. One of the hospital workers' spouses also worked at the same lab and she told her spouse about his admission. The next day, he was let go from his job as being medically unfit although he hadn't told his employer anything. Unfortunately, he couldn't prove who leaked his info. In cases like this, sometimes the employer has to take on o the nose and be fined in order to to a better job enforcing the rules. I agree it would become too complicated if this were the case in all employment but this is only the case where there is confidentiality - medical, legal, and, in some cases, spiritual counselors.

Robert Peters
Robert Peters

She had to say something, but a text is traceable. If she had said it personally, she could have denied it.

Ryan Vazquez
Ryan Vazquez

"Guthrie acknowledged the misconduct and fired the nurse." The nurse had been fired. The leak was discovered only after Doe came forward and an investigation was performed. Guthrie discovered the nurse texted her sister-in-law Doe's information. It says this in the first paragraph of the article. There is no realistic way a hospital can prevent an employee from using his/her cell phone without simply banning them outright entirely, which isn't a realistic option either.

Kevin Eng
Kevin Eng

It could be that the girlfriend has/aquired the STD and told him to get tested.

Jeffrey Lerman
Jeffrey Lerman

Not so impossible as the leak was quickly found and the employee was terminated. Nobody had t monitor any communications to find out who did this. It's part of a fiduciary relationship and there SHOULD be extra security and measures to prevent such behavior. The nurse should not only be fired, but should have lost her license / certification and been heavily fined. When you take on a truly 'professional' career such as physician or nurse, etc. you are expected to behave within the boundaries and requirements of that position.

Ryan Vazquez
Ryan Vazquez

If the hospital is liable, then it would have to monitor employee's communications in almost a Big Brother fashion in order to prevent unauthorized disclosures. This would be a nearly impossible task and likely create an incredibly hostile work atmosphere. Holding the individual employee liable for unauthorized disclosures is arguably a more effective solution because the individual doing the disclosing has more to lose.

cafelinus
cafelinus

"Clinic Not Liable For Nurse Telling Sister About Boyfriend's STD, High Court Rules"

Isn't the bigger story that she's dating her brother?

Jeffrey Lerman
Jeffrey Lerman

Seems like the decision goes against the very essence of why confidentiality exists in the very first place. Medical offices are supposed to be 'safe havens' where you can seek treatment without fear of exposure. To do away with this creates the situation where people will just spread their diseases out of fear rather than seek a cure.

Artie Philie
Artie Philie

Let's not rule out any possibility at this stage.

Ryan Vazquez
Ryan Vazquez

Ok, that makes sense. I assumed the "sister-in-law" was married to the Nurse's brother, making the story that much more salacious.

Babz Rawls Ivy
Babz Rawls Ivy

That's a good Sister. Sometimes you gotta put it on the line for the sake and safety of those you care about.

Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta
Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta

Or the wife could have gave him the STD from sleeping with someone else and he was doing the right thing. Either way the nurse was out of line.

Artie Philie
Artie Philie

Nurse's husband has a sister. That sister was banging Doe. Doe was banging someone else on the side that gave him an STD. Doe = D'OH

Ryan Vazquez
Ryan Vazquez

"Doe was the boyfriend of the nurse's sister-in-law." Please explain.

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