Fixing Hasan v. Garvar: Keeping Physicians In-the-Know

Author:  Amy L. Miles

In December of last year, the Supreme Court of Florida released a broadly-sweeping opinion that appeared to strip from non-defendant physicians the right to consult with an attorney when they are called upon to give testimony on their treatment of a plaintiff/patient: Hasan v. Garvar, Case No. SC10-1361 (Dec. 20, 2012). We described this opinion in our December 26, 2012 entry. In response to the Supreme Court opinion, the Florida Legislature took the issue head-on by amending Florida’s Physician-Patient Confidentiality Statute, section 456.057, Florida Statutes. The amendment, which became effective on July 1 of this year, provides physicians and health care providers with the right to consult with their attorneys whenever they become involved in litigation or administrative action relating to their treatment of a patient, even if they are not a named defendant. For the most part, however, that statutory right must be known exercised by the physician. Under the new provisions, if the physician’s insurer represents a defendant or prospective defendant in the action, it may not initiate contact with the non-party provider to assist him or her in securing legal representation for his or her part in the action.

getty_rf_photo_of_doctor_and_patient_talkingBefore the amendment, the Physician-Patient Confidentiality Statute provided that confidential patient information and records could not be disclosed to anyone other than the patient’s other health care providers without the patient’s authorization. It had one exception, which permitted a health care practitioner or provider to disclose confidential patient information when he or she “reasonably expects to be named as a defendant” in a medical negligence action. Then, a health care provider could disclose the patient’s confidential information to the extent that he or she needed to in order to defend the potential malpractice claim.

With the amendment in place, the Legislature has broadened the health care provider’s right to disclose confidential patient information to his or her attorney not only when the provider is or expects to be a defendant in a medical negligence case, but also to when he or she “reasonably expects to be deposed, to be called as a witness, or to receive formal or informal discovery requests in a medical negligence action, presuit investigation of medical negligence, or administrative proceeding.” § 456.057(7)(d)(4), Fla. Stat. (2013).

In an apparent concession to the Hasan opinion, however, that expanded right to disclose limits the health care provider’s insurer’s ability to contact the health care provider or assist him or her in selecting legal counsel if the insurer also represents a defendant or a prospective defendant in a medical negligence action. § 456.057(7)(d)(4)(a). Under the current statute, if the health care practitioner’s insurer represents a current or prospective defendant, it “may not contact the health care practitioner or provider to recommend that” the provider seek legal counsel and may not select an attorney for the provider. § 456.057(7)(d)(4)(a)(I), (II). If the practitioner initiates the contact with his or her insurer, however, the insurer may recommend an attorney (who does not represent a defendant or prospective defendant in the matter) to represent the practitioner. The practitioner may select an attorney that represents the insurer or the insurer’s other insureds in other matters, but that attorney must not directly or indirectly disclose information to the insurer that relates to representing the provider, other than the attorney’s billing information for the services provided.

The amendment to the Physician-Patient Confidentiality Statute is welcome relief for physicians who had been facing potential depositions and discovery requests without the possibility of representation under the Supreme Court’s Hasan decision. Happily, the legislature intended the amendment to apply retroactively to causes of action that had accrued before the July 1 effective date. By denying the insurer who represents a defendant or potential defendant—i.e., the insurer that is the most likely to know about the medical negligence action in the first place—the right to contact any non-party health care provider to recommend that the provider seek legal counsel, however, the statute still leaves health care providers who are unaware of their right to representation in the dark. Therefore, insurers of health care practitioners and providers must re-double their efforts to inform their insureds of the right to seek counsel whenever they are contacted with discovery requests, or for purposes of deposition or other testimony before that contact occurs.