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Vermont Supreme Court Ruled Patient Can Sue Hospital and Employee for Privacy Violation

The Supreme Court in Vermont has ruled that a patient can sue a hospital and one of its employees for a privacy violation, despite Vermont law and HIPAA not having a private cause of action for privacy violations.

The lawsuit alleges negligence over the disclosure of personal information that was obtained while the patient was being treated in the emergency room. The woman had visited the ER room to receive treatment for a laceration on her arm. The ER nurse who provided care to the patient notified law enforcement that the patient was intoxicated, had driven to the hospital, and intended to drive home after receiving treatment.

The nurse had detected an odor of alcohol on the patient’s breath. Using an alco-sensor, the nurse determined the patient had blood alcohol content of 0.215. In Vermont, that blood alcohol level is more than two and a half times the legal limit for driving. A police officer in the lobby of the hospital was notified and the patient was arrested, although charges were later dropped.

The women subsequently sued the hospital and the employee for violating her privacy by disclosing her health information to law enforcement.

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The HIPAA Privacy Rule limits uses and disclosures of protected health information to treatment, payment, and healthcare operations, but there are exceptions. One of those exceptions is when a disclosure is made when there is a perceived serious threat to health or safety. The Privacy Rule permits such a disclosure if the disclosure is made to a person who could prevent or lessen a threat to either to the patient or the public.

Under the circumstances, the disclosure was reasonable and appropriate, which is what the Supreme Court ultimately concluded, affirming the Superior Court’s judgement. The disclosure was determined to have been made in order to mitigate an imminent threat to both the patient and the public. The Court rules “no reasonable factfinder could determine the disclosure was for any other purpose.” The plaintiff failed to prove that the disclosure had been made for any other purpose, such as in order for the patient to be arrested and charged.

The ruling is perfectly understandable; however, what is atypical is the case was given standing when state and HIPAA laws do not include a private cause of action. Patients do not have the right to sue their providers over violations of HIPAA laws and laws in Vermont also do not give patients that right. The case was ruled to have standing under a common-law private right of action for damages.

While the lawsuit was not successful, it could be cited in other lawsuits filed by patients who allege their privacy has been violated by their healthcare providers.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.