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NY Court Asked to Determine Necessity for Release of Confidential Documents


The Kings County Court on July 22, 1958, was called upon to evaluate two separate cases that involved requests for specific information from protected patient records in a hospital. The court was asked to determine if the cases warranted the release of the medical records, or if the cases were not eligible to request the records because the records were protected by the doctor/patient privilege. In order to determine the necessity for the release of these documents, the court had to look at the specifics involved in each case.

The first case involved a man who had brutally beaten another man in a fight. The fight occurred in Kings County and left the injured man in a condition so serious that he had to be hospitalized. The hospitalization lasted for several weeks. During this time, the man was exposed to a bacteria in the hospital that caused him to suffer from infection. The infection turned into sepsis. The man ultimately died from the sepsis from the bacteria that he was exposed to in the hospital. The man’s assailant was charged with manslaughter for causing the death of his victim. His defense team challenged the indictment based on the fact that the injuries that the man sustained were not the proximate cause of the man’s death. His death was caused by bacteria that he was exposed to while he was hospitalized. The defense contends that they should be allowed access to the victims personal medical records so that they can prove their case at trial.

The second case involved a woman who was charged with poisoning her husband. She contends that she did not poison her husband’s food. In order to prove her case, she requested that all of the medical records be provided to her and her defense team for review. Specifically, she wanted access to the post mortem examination that was conducted by the county Medical Examiner. She stated that she needed all of the reports that involved the chemical analysis of her husband’s organs. She also requested copies of the documents that were submitted and not submitted to the Grand Jury at the time of her indictment.

In both of these cases, the district attorney petitioned for orders of prohibition. His contention was that in the first case, the man would not have been in the hospital to be exposed to the bacteria if the defendant had not assaulted him. In the second case, he pointed out that the woman had access to all of the information that was provided to the Grand Jury which was all of the information that would be used in the trial. His contention being that the information that was in the Grand Jury testimony should be sufficient without violating the doctor/patient privilege.

The court was called upon to determine if use of these documents in court was a violation of the privilege provided to patients to speak openly with their doctors, or if the pursuit of justice was of more importance. The court was troubled by the connotations that the question presented. They first determined that where a person is dead, there is no longer a reason to uphold the privilege. That person can no longer be injured by any information that has been released. They also determined that when a case is presented to a court, the privilege is automatically waived by that victim in order to support a prosecution. In recent years, this rule has been revised so that the defense is privy to any and all documents that are in the possession of the prosecution. Only by having access to all of the information that the prosecution has access to, can a defendant properly prepare their defense in a court of law.

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