Justices Rule Medical Documents Must Be Disclosed

Feb 1, 2017

In a ruling that could have implications for medical-malpractice cases across the state, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday said a Jacksonville hospital system was required to provide records to a patient's family because of a 2004 constitutional amendment.

The 5-2 ruling overturned a decision by the First District Court of Appeal, which said a federal patient-safety law shielded the hospital system from having to turn over some documents in a malpractice lawsuit. The ruling stemmed from a voter-approved ballot initiative, known as Amendment 7, that was designed to expand access to records in malpractice cases.

"The federal act was intended by Congress to improve the overall health care in this system, not to act as a shield to providers, thereby dismantling an important right afforded to Florida citizens through Amendment 7," said the majority opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, justices R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince and Senior Justice James E.C. Perry. "Moreover, health care providers should not be able to unilaterally decide which documents will be discoverable and which will not in medical malpractice cases."

But Justice Charles Canady, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ricky Polston, wrote that the Supreme Court should not have ruled in the case. That is because the family of patient Marie Charles and Southern Baptist Hospital of Florida, Inc., which does business as the Baptist Health hospitals, reached a settlement on the eve of Supreme Court arguments in October.

But the majority, in a footnote, pointed to broader implications of the case.

"After briefing in this case was complete and the day before oral argument, the parties filed a stipulation of dismissal, which we rejected because this case not only involves an issue of statewide importance, but also involves a decision of the 1st District holding that (part) of the Florida Constitution has been preempted by federal law and is therefore invalid," the footnote said. "Absent an opinion from this (Supreme) Court, all trial courts in this state would be bound by the opinion of the 1st District, until there is a contrary decision from the appellate court in their own district."

Charles' family filed a lawsuit against the health system alleging that negligence in her care caused a severe neurological injury, according to Tuesday's ruling.