Supreme Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over Husband’s Death Because Wife Failed to Provide Medical Release to Healthcare Providers

November 25, 2013

Today the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed against several Hickman County medical providers because they were not given a required release that allows potential defendants to access a plaintiff’s relevant medical records before suit is filed.

Christine Stevens filed the action against a hospital, an emergency room, and a doctor following the death of her husband, Mark Stevens, who had sought treatment at the Hickman Community Hospital emergency room.

Tennessee law provides that before filing a healthcare liability lawsuit, a plaintiff must provide notice of the claim to the potential defendants and include within the notice a medical release compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 – a federal law commonly known as HIPAA – which allows the potential defendants to obtain relevant medical records from each other.

According to Justice Sharon G. Lee, who wrote for the majority, the medical release requirement provides a means for the defendants to evaluate the merits of a plaintiff’s claim by giving them early access to a plaintiff’s medical records. Finding that the plaintiff’s medical release had both failed to comply with HIPAA and failed to authorize the release of the plaintiff’s medical records to the defendants, the majority held that the plaintiff’s medical release “was woefully deficient” and dismissed her claim.

A trial judge had ruled that Mrs. Stevens’ failure to include a HIPAA-compliant medical release was excused because of extraordinary circumstances. The majority of the Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed, finding that Mrs. Stevens’ failure to comply with the law’s medical release requirement should not have been excused.

Chief Justice Gary R. Wade, joined by Justice Janice M. Holder, filed a dissenting opinion, pointing out that by satisfying four of the five statutory requirements, Mrs. Stevens had substantially complied with the law. Citing the principle that claims should be decided on their merits whenever possible, the dissenting justices concluded that the mistaken medical release form caused no significant harm to the defendants, could have been easily corrected, and did not warrant the dismissal of the complaint.

Read the majority opinion authored by Justice Lee in Stevens ex rel. Stevens v. Hickman Community Healthcare, authored by Justice Lee, and the separate concurring opinion and dissent by Chief Justice Wade.