Florida Supreme Court Ruling Protects Privacy of Deceased in Wrongful Death Lawsuit Appeal

Florida wrongful death cases stem from different types of accidents and injuries. Some may be caused by a vehicle collision, and others may occur at the hands of a negligent health care provider. In any scenario, the plaintiff and their counsel must scrutinize all of the relevant statutes that either affect the way proceedings unfold or present substantive challenges to obtaining the damages one seeks. In Florida, a medical negligence action requires a pre-suit investigation to determine whether or not there are reasonable grounds to believe the medical provider was negligent and caused the injury through this negligence.

A recently issued state Supreme Court decision analyzes one of these pre-suit requirements that allows each prospective defendant the ability to access protected verbal and written health information as part of their pre-suit discovery. The state’s constitution requires the injured party to authorize the release of any information that is potentially relevant to a claim of medical negligence. While irrelevant information is excluded, a claimant must still name her or his providers and dates of treatment. Failing to participate in this phase can lead to a dismissal of the claim.

Specifically at issue in this decision is defendants’ ability to unilaterally schedule an interview with health care providers if the claimant fails to do so within 15 days of a defendant’s request for an interview. Subsequent interviews can be requested to be arranged with only 72 hours’ notice. The personal representative and wife of the decedent at the center of this action filed suit against a treating physician, alleging his negligent care led to the deceased’s injury and death. From the beginning of the litigation, the plaintiff asserted the 2013 amendments allowing access to records in a medical malpractice pre-suit investigation violated the right to privacy under the state’s Constitution.

The defendant doctor moved to dismiss both the action and the plaintiff’s privacy claim. The trial court determined the estate cannot assert privacy rights on behalf of the deceased because their rights under Florida’s Constitution terminated upon death and are retroactively eliminated. The estate appealed, and the First District affirmed the trial court’s decision. The lower appellate court held the pre-suit process within the Constitution did not abolish or eliminate any substantive rights. It additionally held the plaintiff waives the information at issue simply by filing the medical malpractice claim.

The Supreme Court did not agree with the reasoning used by the lower courts. The majority found that plaintiffs who were fortunate enough to survive negligence would instantly have stronger protections than those who were affected by greater acts of malpractice that led to death. The court found this outcome to be unacceptable. The court distinguished the facts at hand from a cited Supreme Court decision that previously held a person’s “constitutional rights terminate at death.” In Sieniarecki v. State, the court assessed a challenge from a criminal defendant found guilty of neglecting a disabled adult. That defendant called upon the deceased’s right to privacy in order to shield herself from criminal liability. In the present civil action, it was the plaintiff attempting to find recourse and uphold the right to privacy. The Supreme Court found the decedent in a wrongful death action needs the law to provide protection because they are unable to preserve the right themselves.

The Florida Supreme Court concluded the right to privacy remains for all citizens protected under the state’s Constitution, even after death. The administrator of the estate stands in the shoes of the decedent and can assert the privacy rights of the deceased. The Supreme Court found the 2013 amendments to sections 766.106 and 766.1065 of the Florida Statutes unconstitutional, since they incorrectly conditioned the injured person’s right of access to redress of an injury through the civil court system on the claimant’s waiver of the right to privacy. The court struck the language authorizing ex parte interviews, quashed the decision below, and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Florida wrongful death attorneys at Donaldson & Weston will aggressively push back against defendants’ attempts to limit or eliminate their liability and damages that are owed to you. Call our office today for a free, confidential consultation at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

More Blog Posts:

Florida District Appellate Court Reviews Future Medical Expenses in Multi-Car Accident Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, November 28, 2016

Federal Circuit Court of Appeal Declines to Find Equitable Tolling in Slip and Fall Case, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, October 21, 2016

Florida Court of Appeal Allows Injured Motorist to Pursue Additional PIP Payments to Medical Providers, Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, May 18, 2017