Duty to Warn: Appeals Court Finds Physician Unjustified for Breaching Confidentiality

May 31, 2013 | Physician Practice News

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A New York court of appeals overturned a jury verdict in favor of a physician who was sued for breaching patient confidentiality after she warned the patient’s estranged wife that her husband might be a danger to her and disclosed the details of the husband’s visit to a hospital emergency department (ED). The appeals court found the evidence presented at trial insufficient to support the physician’s defense that she had a reasonable fear that the patient may be dangerous. The court concluded that the physician was “at best, equivocal regarding how serious and imminent a threat” the patient presented, and therefore found her unjustified in breaching the patient’s confidentiality. Both the husband and wife had been patients of the physician. After the wife complained of escalating verbal abuse by her husband, the physician concluded that he may have suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. She spoke to him in her office about his marriage and mental health, but he took offense and left the office, refusing to see the physician again. Three months later, he went to an ED for complaints of chest and ear pain. The emergency physician called the defendant physician and allegedly asked her if there was anyone who may be at risk from the patient because he was carrying a “large stack of gun magazines” and that he was concerned that that the patient might be suffering from mental illness (however, neither of these statements was substantiated by documentation in the ED record).

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