Developments in Indiana Law

Court of Appeals Reverses Summary Judgment for Hospital Regarding Whether the Disclosure of Information to a Family Member Constituted Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

By: Carol A. Dillon

On October 31, 2014, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided J.H. v. St. Vincent Hospital and Health Center, and held that a nurse's phone call to the patient's grandmother possibly violated the patient's privacy rights and could constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress. St. Vincent received summary judgment at the trial court on all of Plaintiff's claims, including intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of several Indiana Codes regarding patient privacy information. Plaintiff J. H. checked himself into the St. Vincent Stress Center for suicidal ideation and specifically told employees that he did not want his family to know where he was or about his mental health issues. When he was filling out his paperwork, he was told he needed to designate an emergency contact and the Plaintiff was hesitant. However, he was assured that the person would only be contacted in case of a true emergency, like a heart attack, and J.H. then agreed to list his grandmother as his emergency contact. J.H. later told employees that he had a gun and medical staff found a live bullet in his pocket. A nurse later called J.H.'s grandmother to report to her that J.H. was fine and he was being treated at the Stress Center. J.H.'s grandmother then called other family members to find out what was going on and eventually called the Stress Center back and talked to an employee, who again assured her that J.H. was there and that he was safe and receiving treatment. When J.H found out about this contact, he was very upset and threatened to leave the Stress Center. Several weeks after his discharge from the Stress Center, J.H. went to the St. Vincent Hospital Emergency Room for suicidal ideation and said he was very upset and emotionally disturbed over his family learning of his mental health issues. J.H. then sued the hospital on multiple theories, including negligence for failing to train employees, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of several Indiana codes regarding disclosure of private health information. The trial court granted Summary Judgment on all of St. Vincent's claims and J.H. appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on several of the claims, including the negligence claim, the intentional infliction of distress claim, and the code violations. The Court of Appeals held that there was a dispute of fact as to whether St. Vincent breached its statutory duty under Indiana Codes Section 16-39-2-6, which prohibits disclosure of mental health records absent an authorization from the patient. While St. Vincent claimed its communication to J.H.'s grandmother was related to the emergency regarding his claim of having a gun, the actual voicemail to the grandmother did not contain any information regarding the gun, nor was it the grandmother who sought out information from the Stress Center. The Court of Appeals held that the plain language of the authorization signed by J.H. limited contact to true emergencies and that there was a dispute of fact as to whether the information provided to the grandmother was regarding an emergency. The Court of Appeals also held that there was a dispute of fact about whether St. Vincent had failed to properly train its employees regarding the proper handling and protection of confidential medical information. St. Vincent argued that Plaintiff had no expert evidence to connect the disclosure of information to Plaintiff's actual injuries, but St. Vincent was relying on the federal summary judgment standard, which allows summary judgment when a plaintiff cannot prove one of the elements of his claim. However, in state court, the moving party has to have evidence of its own that negates one of the plaintiff's claims and cannot merely point out that plaintiff lacks evidence. Therefore, the fact that St. Vincent did not have its own expert testimony to negate any causal connection between the breach of confidentiality and Plaintiff's injuries did not entitle St. Vincent to summary judgment. Regarding the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the Court of Appeals held that there was a dispute of fact as to whether the nurse's conduct was so outrageous that it satisfied the reckless element of this tort, particularly in light of the fact that J.H. had warned his providers that he specifically did not want his family to know of his mental health condition. This case emphasizes the fact that patient confidentiality and privacy rules continue to be a hot topic in medical malpractice cases and that the Court of Appeals is willing to let plaintiffs have their day in Court on these types of issues.

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