The Cassidy Law Firm Blog

Saturday, May 28, 2016

New Jersey Protects Reports of Hospital Errors with Absolute Privilege

A recent study shows that medical errors may be the third leading cause of non-violent death in the U.S., claiming over a quarter of a million lives. But for residents of New Jersey, finding out about deadly mistakes is now more difficult because of a recent decision by a New Jersey appellate division court.

Reports on Medical Mistakes Remain Confidential

A three-judge panel has held that hospital error reports filed with the New Jersey Department of Health after a patient injury or death are not discoverable in medical malpractice litigation. According to the court, the language of the Patient Safety Act gives these reports "absolute privilege," making them off-limits to plaintiffs bringing lawsuits over errors by health providers.

According to the court, the purpose of the Public Safety Act (PSA) was to make sure that hospitals and health care facilities fully investigate possible mistakes and take steps to prevent them from happening in the future. This can only take place in a "non-punitive" environment in which hospitals and health care are free to examine their practices and take corrective action without fear of exposure to lawsuits.

Statute Allowed Hospital to Refuse to Share "Root Cause Analysis" With Plaintiffs

In the case that led to the decision, a patient died from an intracerebral hemorrhage after falling out of bed. His wife sued the hospital and hospital employees. The Department of Health required the hospital to file a "Root Cause Analysis" or "RCA" report on the incident, and the plaintiff filed a motion to obtain it. The hospital opposed the motion on the grounds that the report was privileged and not discoverable.

A lower court granted the plaintiff's motion, relying on case law decided prior to the enactment of the Public Safety Act. But the appellate court reversed that decision, holding that the statute, not common law, applied in this case. The plaintiff had also claimed that the Root Cause Analysis report should be discoverable because the hospital had not fully complied with the disclosure requirements of the Public Safety Act. But the appellate court held that failing to comply fully with the Act's requirements did not change the privileged status of the report.

Absolute Privilege, Intended to Serve Broad Public Policy Goals, Harms Victims' Families

The privileged status of internal investigations was intended by the legislature to enable hospitals to take steps to improve patient safety without fear of lawsuits. At the same time, it is an obstacle for victims of negligence and malpractice and their families who are denied information on how their medical treatment was mishandled.

Suing hospitals and health care providers for negligence and malpractice can be an uphill battle, and the lack of access to RCA reports is just one of many challenges plaintiffs face. If you or a loved one have suffered from a medical error, an experienced malpractice attorney can help you fight for the verdict and compensation you deserve.


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