Appeals panel: HIPAA doesn't bar hospital from identifying witness to slip-and-fall

By Scott Holland | May 16, 2017

A state appeals court said a woman who fell in her hospital room is entitled to know the identity of her roommate and a visitor, despite a hospital’s contention that information should be shielded by HIPAA.

A state appeals court said a woman who fell in her hospital room is entitled to know the identity of her roommate and a visitor, despite a hospital’s contention that information should be shielded by HIPAA.

The Illinois First District Appellate Court addressed that matter in answering a certified question from Cook County Circuit Court Judge Larry Axelrod in an unpublished order May 10. Justice Aurelia Pucinski wrote the order; Justices James G. Ftizgerald Smith and Terrence J. Lavin concurred. The order was issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under limited circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court rule.

Tracy Ruzzier and her husband, George, had filed suit against Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Healthcare for injuries Tracy allegedly suffered when she fell at the hospital in May 2013 fall. George had sued for loss of consortium.

As part of that action, filed May 5, 2015, they are seeking the name of a patient and visitor who might have witnessed Tracy’s fall. The hospital declined, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Axelrod denied the Ruzziers’ request to compel the hospital to release the information, but did permit their request to submit the question to the appellate panel.

According to Pucinski’s background, Ruzzier fell during discharge when a hospital attendant ordered her to walk from her bed to a wheelchair, denying her request to bring the chair closer to the bed. Ruzzier said she was on pain medication that impaired her ability to walk.

The defendants filed a motion to transfer the case to Lake County. In September 2015, before any ruling on that motion, the Ruzziers voluntarily dismissed Northwestern Healthcare as a defendant. It was during discovery on that motion the Ruzziers first sought the name and address of the patient and visitor.

Pucinski said “many other courts” determined Illinois’ statutory doctor-patient privilege “does not protect the name and contact information of patients when that is the only information sought,” as it would not “have had any bearing on the doctor’s diagnosis or treatment of the patient,” nor would disclosing it to the Ruzziers have revealed anything about that patient’s medical condition.

The hospital cited a 2007 Fifth District opinion in Coy vs. Washington County Hospital District, which affirmed a trial court’s decision to prevent disclosure of certain patient identities. However, Pucinski wrote, that case was about patients who alleged they received substandard care and the Fifth District’s opinion involved journalists seeking access to public records. That panel said whether patient names were protected by doctor-patient privilege was not an applicable matter.

Further, Pucinski noted the Ruzziers’ position is strengthened because they are not asking for any details about doctors connected to Tracy’s hospital roommate or implying the person’s business at the hospital is in any way relevant to their inquiry.

With respect to HIPAA, the Ruzziers argued state law is more stringent, rendering the federal policy inapplicable. Pucinski agreed, and noted the hospital made no argument in response.

Further, she wrote, even if HIPAA were applicable in this instance, it specifically allows disclosure of protected health information under relevant circumstances, and the hospital’s contention that “exceptions apply only to information regarding patients who are parties to the judicial or administrative proceeding is unavailing. … Nowhere does the regulation limit its application to disclosure of protected health information in proceedings in which the patient is a party.”

The Ruzziers are represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Corboy & Demetrio, of Chicago.

Defendants are represented by the firm of Swanson Martin & Bell, of Chicago, according to Cook County court records.

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Corboy & Demetrio Illinois First District Appellate Court Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital Swanson Martin & Bell LLP

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