Indiana Medical Malpractice Act Not Applicable to Claim of Negligent Dissemination of Protected Health Information

Not all claims against healthcare providers in Indiana constitute medical malpractice and fall within the scope of the Medical Malpractice Act. A slip-and-fall on untreated ice in a parking lot at a hospital, for instance, is a claim of ordinary negligence, as opposed to medical malpractice. The Medical Malpractice Act does not apply to claims of ordinary negligence.

Whether a claim constitutes medical malpractice or ordinary negligence is a question of law and often turns on hairline distinctions with courts looking to the substance of a claim. The test is whether the claim is based on the provider’s behavior or practices while acting in a professional capacity as a provider of medical services. The Medical Malpractice Act applies to curative or salutary conduct undertaken for the benefit of a patient’s health. The Medical Malpractice Act does not apply to conduct unrelated to the promotion of a patient’s health or the provider’s exercise of professional expertise, skill, or judgment. Courts also ask whether the issues are capable of resolution by a jury without application of the standard of care and whether there is a causal connection between the conduct complained of and the patient-healthcare provider relationship.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently held that the Medical Malpractice Act was not applicable to a claim of negligent dissemination of protected health information.

In G.F. v. St. Catherine Hospital, Inc., a patient was receiving treatment in a hospital for pneumonia-related symptoms, and while a co-worker was in his room, a medical provider, in the presence of the co-worker, relayed information indicating that the patient had HIV. As a result of the disclosure, the co-worker cut off all ties with the patient and the patient’s work atmosphere was also alleged to have been negatively affected. The patient filed a proposed complaint with the Indiana Department of Insurance and an anonymous state-court complaint alleging that the disclosure resulted in emotional harm and an irreparable loss of privacy. After receiving a positive opinion from the Medical Review Panel formed to review the case, the patient sought a determination in state court that the Medical Malpractice Act did not apply to his claims.

The trial court held the Medical Malpractice Act applied to the patient’s claims and the patient thereafter appealed that decision to the Indiana Court of Appeals. While the Defendants argued on appeal that the provider’s communication of laboratory results and a recommendation for follow-up care were performed by the provider in furtherance of the patient’s health while the provider was acting in a professional capacity, the patient argued that dissemination of that information to a third party was neither curative or salutary to the patient for the benefit of the patient’s health.

The Indiana Court of Appeals held that the patient’s claims involved ordinary negligence, falling outside of the ambit of the Medical Malpractice Act. The Court reasoned that while the provider’s communication to the patient may have constituted healthcare treatment, communication of the confidential information to a third party did not constitute healthcare treatment, was not curative or salutary and did not otherwise require application to the standard of care by a jury.

The Indiana Court of Appeals also rejected the Defendants’ argument, based upon another panel’s recent decision in Cmty Hospitals of Ind., Inc. v. Aspen Ins. UK Ltd, 113 N.E.3d 636 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018), that because the patient had taken the case through the medical review panel process, the patient was therefore estopped from denying the applicability of the Medical Malpractice Act.

The published decision can be found here.

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