Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Hospital BAC disclosure prompts tort privacy claims

Photo by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)
The federal district court in Montana in December refused to dismiss an informational privacy claim against police, highlighting the space for state law to effect personal privacy protection in the United States.

Plaintiff Harrington was hospitalized after police found her unresponsive in her parked car. In the complaint, she alleged that sheriff's deputies "joked about her incapacitated condition and played along when nurses asked them to guess her blood alcohol content" (BAC). A nurse thereby disclosed Harrington's BAC, and, the complaint alleged, deputies then coaxed the record from a doctor. Harrington was charged with driving under the influence.

Subsequently, Harrington sued county officials and Madison Valley Hospital, the latter on theories of state statutory information privacy and common law invasion of privacy, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The hospital sought dismissal on grounds that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), cited by the plaintiff in the complaint, affords no private right of action.  The federal district court, per Chief Judge Brian Morris, denied the motion to dismiss, recognizing that while HIPAA does not itself authorize private enforcement, it also does not preclude state law from providing greater privacy protection.

The case caught my attention because its facts point to something for which I've advocated, the use of tort law to fill gaps in informational privacy protection in the United States.  The law has not kept up with Americans' expectations of privacy, much less the norms of the world, but the common law should be sufficiently dynamic to reflect the evolving social contract.  I see drift in this direction in the expansion of medical fiduciary duty in emerging precedents in the states, such as Connecticut's Byrne v. Avery Center for Obstetrics & Gynecology, P.C., in 2018.

A theory as tenuous as negligent infliction of emotional distress, "NIED," can't usually stand on its own.  And tortious invasion of privacy has a poor track record in protecting personal information that is already in limited circulation.  However, paired with a medical provider's fiduciary duty and bolstered by a privacy violation recognized in regulation, either tort theory might be ripe for redefinition.

The case is Harrington v. Madison County, No. 2:21-cv-00015 (D. Mont. Dec. 6, 2021).  Hat tip to Linn Foster Freedman at Robinson+Cole's Data Privacy + Cybersecurity Insider.

No comments:

Post a Comment