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Medical Records Case Goes To U.S. Supreme Court


Arguing that a Florida Supreme Court ruling “undermines” a federal patient-safety law, a Jacksonville hospital system is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a legal battle about the disclosure of medical records.
Southern Baptist Hospital of Florida, Inc., which operates as the Baptist Health System in the Jacksonville area, filed a petition last week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a Jan. 31 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court.

The case could have implications for medical-malpractice lawsuits across Florida and deals with interplay between a 2005 federal patient-safety law and a 2004 Florida constitutional amendment that was designed to expand access to health-care providers' records in malpractice cases.

The 2004 constitutional amendment, backed by plaintiffs' attorneys, was intended to provide access to what are known in the health-care industry as "adverse medical incident" reports.

But in a malpractice case involving a woman who suffered a neurological injury, Baptist argued it shouldn't have to turn over some documents because of the federal 2005 Patient Safety Act. The law allows hospitals to voluntarily submit information about medical errors to what are known as "patient safety organizations" --- and offers certain confidentiality protections. The law was aimed, at least in part, at encouraging health providers to submit information that could be analyzed and used to prevent future medical errors.

The Florida Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, ruled against the hospital system. But the petition filed last week in the U.S. Supreme Court contends that the state justices' ruling undermines the purpose of the federal law and violates the legal concept of federal “preemption” of conflicting state laws.

“The effect of this backwards ruling (by the Florida Supreme Court) is to leave in place the patchwork of inconsistent state laws that Congress deemed inadequate to permit the candid sharing and analysis of medical-error information,” the petition said. “Indeed, given the breadth of the state laws at issue, the privilege is now all but nugatory in Florida, leaving health-care providers with the dilemma of eschewing valuable patient-safety activities altogether or creating work product that may be used against them in litigation. That is not what Congress envisioned when it enacted a uniform federal privilege.”

But the majority of the Florida Supreme Court in January disputed such an interpretation of the federal law.

"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 (the 2004 amendment)," said the opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, justices R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince and retired 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."

It is unclear whether the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case. Justices receive thousands of petitions a year and agree to take up relatively few cases.

The underlying lawsuit was filed against the Baptist system by the family of patient Marie Charles and alleged that negligence in her care caused a severe neurological injury, according to court documents.

The family and Baptist reached a settlement on the eve of Florida Supreme Court arguments on the records issue. But a majority of the court said the records issue needed to be decided, pointing to its broader implications.