Wrongful Death and the Physician-Patient Privilege
UPDATED: June 19, 2018
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All states have laws about what is called the physician-patient privilege. This privilege includes a patient’s right to medical privacy and the right to prevent a physician from revealing the contents of medical files without the patient’s permission. This privilege is frequently an issue in wrongful death lawsuits, where wrongful death lawyers need access to the medical information to prepare for a case. Because the plaintiff (the person suing) in the wrongful death lawsuit must prove that the defendant(s) caused the wrongful death, medical evidence is crucial.
Exceptions to the Physician-Patient Privilege
Usually, a physician is not allowed to release information without the permission of the patient or deceased person. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. In some states, the deceased’s personal representative, surviving spouse, or next of kin has the right to waive (release) the privilege and have medical information released once the injured person has died.
In some states, the files may only be released to a hospital or a doctor; they can’t be released directly to a wrongful death attorney. There is also the question of whether the files can be obtained before a wrongful death lawsuit has been filed. There is some dispute about whether the files should be released, but the plaintiff’s attorney can usually obtain the files with his or her client’s permission if the files are sought in contemplation of filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
Waiver of the Privilege in a Personal Injury Action
If the wrongful death action began as a personal injury action during the injured person’s lifetime, and the plaintiff later died of the injuries, the patient’s waiver of the physician-patient privilege for purposes of the personal injury action will also be a waiver of the privilege for the subsequent wrongful death lawsuit by the patient’s family. For example, if a woman is injured in a car accident and she files a lawsuit to recover damages for her injuries, from which she later dies, her family’s wrongful death lawyer can have access to the medical information she authorized her physician to release for her personal injury claim.
Check out the following articles for more information about wrongful death, filing a wrongful death lawsuit and finding an experienced wrongful death attorney.
- For more information about wrongful death, see Overview: What is Wrongful Death?
- For more information about who may file a wrongful death lawsuit, see Who May Sue for Wrongful Death?
- To find out more about damages in a wrongful death lawsuit, see Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit.
- For more information about the statute of limitations for bringing a wrongful death action, see Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim.
- If you would like to learn more about wrongful death lawsuits, see Wrongful Death Lawsuits: What They Are and How They Work.
- To learn more about wrongful death attorneys and how to find one, see How a Wrongful Death Lawyer Can Help You.