Hospitals Not Always Liable for Employee Breach of Patient Data

Hospitals are not liable for an employee's breach of patient data, or any civil wrong, if the employee is not a physician and acts outside the scope of his or her employment, according to a Lexology report.

In Doe vs. Guthrie Clinic, a patient, Doe, filed a lawsuit in September 2012 against the Sayre-Pa.-based health system after a nurse who knew the patient's girlfriend texted her information regarding the patient's STD test.

The nurse was subsequently fired, and all eight claims Doe filed were dismissed by the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. Doe appealed five of the claims, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the only question at hand was whether the nurse initiated a breach of fiduciary duty, or a legal obligation to act in another party's interest.

The appeals court "declined to hold the clinic responsible under a claim of breach of fiduciary duty," saying that since the nurse's text messages were unrelated to Doe's treatment and care and were motivated by personal reasons, the clinic was not liable for her actions on the basis of "respondeat superior," which holds an employer liable for an employee's actions so long as the actions are business related.

The court maintained "a medical corporation is generally not liable for a tort of an employee when such an action is not within the scope of employment."

However, the court also said hospitals have a legal responsibility to properly train staff and implement appropriate policies, noting "a medical corporation may…be liable in tort for failing to establish adequate policies and procedures to safeguard the confidentiality of patient information or to train their employees to properly discharge their duties under those policies and procedures."

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