A car accident is a traumatic event that can seriously injure or kill a victim. Dealing with the loss of a loved one in a car accident is tragic enough. But what happens when medical providers—the people responsible for treating accident victims—compound a family’s loss by violating their loved one’s privacy rights? New York State’s highest court recently addressed this issue.
No Exception to Physician-Patient Privilege for Reality TV Crews
In August 2012, a major television network broadcast a “reality” television program that followed the work of doctors at a hospital in Manhattan. The program featured the doctors treating various patients. Among these patients was a car accident victim. According to court records, the patient “was brought into the emergency room in critical condition” having “suffered severe injuries to his abdominal and pelvic region.” The patient went into cardiac arrest several times, and despite the efforts of emergency room personnel, he died.
The camera crew captured the entire event, from the patient’s treatment in the emergency room to the chief surgical resident notifying the family of his death. At no point did the producers of the television program seek consent from the deceased patient or his family to broadcast these events. The victim’s widow did not learn that a camera crew had been present until the footage of her husband’s death was broadcast by the network more than a year later.
The victim’s family subsequently sued the network, the hospital, and the surgeon, alleging, among other things, violation of New York law governing doctor-patient confidentiality. In 2014, the Appellate Division, First Department, held the case against all defendants should be dismissed. The family appealed, and in March 2016, the New York Court of Appeals ruled the case against the hospital and the surgeon could proceed.
In its unanimous opinion, the Court of Appeals noted that New York was the first state in the country to incorporate a physician-patient privilege into law. The privilege, which can only be waived by the patient, is explicitly designed to “protect the reasonable privacy expectations of patients that their sensitive personal information will not be disclosed” to third parties. The Court of Appeals has long held this privilege should be given “liberal construction” to maximize its benefits to the patient.
Here, the family alleges the hospital and the surgeon illegally “disclosed and discussed” the deceased patient’s medical condition with the television crew. The defendants argued that since the patient “was not identifiable on the aired episode of the television program, his confidential information was not disclosed.” But even if no member of the public could identify the deceased—a point contested by the family—the Court of Appeals noted there were at least a dozen members of the television production crew who were privy to the patient’s identity and medical information.