Doctor/Patient Privilege No Bar to Identity of Patient Witnessing Fall of Plaintiff's Decedent

Evidence—Doctor/Patient Privilege No Bar to Identity of Patient Witnessing Fall

Carondelet Health Network v. Miller, 221 Ariz. 614, 212 P.3d 952 (App., Div. II, June 12, 2009) (J. Vasquez)

DOCTOR PATIENT PRIVILEGE DOES NOT BAR DISCOVERY OF PATIENT'S IDENTITY WHO WITNESSES FALLS OF PLAINTIFF'S DECEDENT IN HOSPITAL AND ALLEGEDLY NOTIFIED NURSE

Dudley Atteberry died after a fall in the defendant hospital. Dudley's surviving widow brought a wrongful death medical malpractice suit. During the litigation she sought discovery of the name, address and phone number of a hospital patient who, while sharing a room with her husband at the hospital witnessed two falls and told her he had reported these falls to the nurse. The hospital records did not mention these falls or reports to the nurse. The widow failed to get the other patient's name. The hospital objected asserting the doctor/patient privilege. The trial court rejected this argument and the hospital brought this special action.
In upholding the trial court's ruling the Court of Appeals discussed the purpose of the physician/patient privilege contained in ARS sec. 12-2235 and 12-2292: “to foster a patient's full and frank disclosure of medical history and symptoms to his or her physician in order to facilitate the best possible medical treatment. . . people should feel free to seek treatment undeterred by fear that a private physical condition will become a matter of public discussion.”

In contrast to other exclusionary rules based upon the unreliability, confusing nature, and/or time consuming propensity of the evidence at issue, privileges tend to exclude evidence that is reliable, valuable and relevant. Hence their application is narrow. Hence, whereas here, the disclosure of the patient's identity reveals nothing of any communication concerning the patient's ailments, disclosure of the name does not violate the privilege.

In response, the defense argued that in fact the patient's medical condition would be disclosed in discovering his ability to perceive and recall events. However, the court ruled that this is no different than any other eye witness to events that later become the subject of litigation and therefore not grounds for application of the privilege.

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