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Florida Supreme Court rules that state constitution provision guaranteeing access to records relating to adverse medical incidents not preempted by federal law

On January 31, 2017, in Charles v. Southern Baptist Hospital of Florida, No. SC15-2180, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that records relating to "adverse medical incidents," which Florida patients have a right of access to under article X, section 25 of the Florida Constitution, are not privileged and and confidential under the Federal Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act. This decision, which reversed a First District Court of Appeal decision that state law was preempted by federal law on this issue, clears the way for Florida medical negligence plaintiffs to obtain records regarding a health care provider's previous history of adverse medical incidents. The plaintiff in the case had sought documents related to previous adverse medical incidents at the defendant hospital or related to any physician who provided care and treatment at the hospital from three years before the plaintiff's medical incident through the time when the discovery request was filed. The hospital provided some responsive records, including two occurrence reports regarding the plaintiff, but claimed that other occurrence reports involving adverse incidents (presumably involving other patients) were privileged and confidential under the Federal Act. In ruling that the Federal Act did not preempt state law, the Florida Supreme Court noted that the Federal Act permitted but did not require provider participation, whereas the state law mandated disclosure, and concluded that the Federal Act was intended by Congress to improve health care, not act as a shield to providers.

It is noteworthy that the parties jointly filed for a stipulation of dismissal prior to oral argument in this case. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the stipulation based on the "statewide importance" of the case, noting specifically that in the absence of an opinion from the Court all trial courts in the State would be bound by the First Circuit's decision until there was a contrary decision from an appellate court in their own district. Justice Canady dissented from the Court's decision based on his view that a stipulation for dismissal file before a decision on the merits is not subject to disapproval by the Court, rendering the Court's opinion in his view no more than an advisory opinion.

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