Supreme Court of Florida Invokes Constitutional Provision in Decision on Proper Scope of Discovery in Medical Malpractice Suit

Although the average course on civics or government thoroughly reviews the provisions of the United States Constitution, many overlook the importance of state constitutions as sources of important rights. While certain state constitutional provisions – for instance, the Florida Constitution’s analog to the Fourth Amendment – are interpreted co-extensively with their federal counterparts, some do provide particularized protections that should not be overlooked. In a recent case, Ampuero-Martinez v. Cedars Healthcare Group, the Supreme Court of Florida raised one such provision: Article X § 25(a) of the Florida Constitution.

Art. X § 25(a) of the Florida Constitution, titled “Patients’ right to know about adverse medical incidents,” provides Floridians with the right to “have access to any records made or received in the course of business by a health care facility or provider relating to any adverse medical incident.” Ampuero-Martinez arose from a discovery dispute in a medical malpractice case involving the death of the plaintiff’s father at a medical facility in Miami-Dade County. The plaintiff sought medical records from the facility where her father’s death occurred, and the defendant medical facility objected to the production request. The trial court overruled this objection, but the defendant filed an immediate appeal to the Third District Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court in part, holding that the trial court failed to properly limit discovery pursuant to § 381.028(7)(a) of the Florida Statutes.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Ampuero-Martinez is quite short for good reason. Three years prior to the Third District Court of Appeal decision, the Supreme Court of Florida had definitively held that § 381.028(7)(a) unconstitutionally contravened the constitutional protection afforded by Art. X § 25(a). See Florida Hosp. Waterman, Inc. v. Buster, 984 So.2d 478 (Fla. 2007). Consequently, the Supreme Court quashed the Third District’s decision and remanded the case to the trial court for reconsideration in accordance with the standards set forth in Buster. In Buster, the court held that several provisions of § 381.028, legislation that had been enacted by the Florida Legislature to “implement” and otherwise give force and effect to Art. X § 25(a), contravened the broad rights provided by the then newly-enacted constitutional provision. Specifically, the court noted the following conflicts:

“(1) the statute only allows for final reports to be discoverable, while the amendment provides that “any records” relating to adverse medical incidents are subject to the amendment; (2) the statute only provides for disclosure of final reports relating to the same or a substantially similar condition, treatment, or diagnosis with that of the patient requesting access; (3) the statute limits production to only those records generated after November 2, 2004; and (4) the statute states that it will have no effect on existing privilege statutes.” Buster, 984 So.2d at 492-93.

However, Buster didn’t invalidate the statute in its entirety. Id. at 493-94 (discussing severability of offending provisions). Accordingly, on remand the trial court should still apply § 381.028 in ascertaining the proper scope of discovery, but it need not, as suggested by the Third District Court of Appeal, conform the discovery to § 381.028(7)(a), which was one of the specific provisions held unconstitutional.

Although one would not expect the provisions of any constitution to be particularly applicable in a medical malpractice suit, Buster and Ampuero-Martinez demonstrate not only the importance of knowing about lesser-known constitutional rights but also the wide breadth of issues that can arise in a personal injury suit. Given the scope of issues that can surface, the assistance of well-informed and experienced counsel is important for anyone considering bringing a lawsuit, whether or not it seems complicated on its face. The South Florida injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are well-versed in all areas of the law, from the Florida Constitution to the minutiae of the municipal regulations, and are prepared to offer you the assistance you need in your South Florida medical malpractice suit. For a free consultation, click here or call 1-855-800-8000.

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