Brewer v. Hunter – Medical Records of Non-Parties Relevant in Malpractice Suit, Court Rules

A man rendered permanently paralyzed following back surgery has won a key victory in his lawsuit against the surgeon and hospital, after the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision to allow the medical records/outcomes of other surgical patients to be considered as evidence.
Medical malpractice attorneys in Charlotte know that while the outcome of any case is going to be heavily weighted to the facts in that particular instance, the assertion of malpractice is a complex one, and by allowing a broader range of evidence, the courts gave plaintiffs an opportunity to determine whether this physician had a problematic history. This information would be relevant in a medical malpractice case, where plaintiffs have to prove a breach in the acceptable standard of care. A pattern of such breaches would strengthen the claim and potentially dampen defendant doctor’s credibility.

Here, in Brewer v. Hunter et al., the patient in question first underwent thoracic spinal surgery to treat his severe back pain, leg weakness and spinal stenosis. Less than a decade later, he sought treatment from his primary care physician for many of these same issues. He was referred to a neuroscience and spine center specialist doctor after an MRI scan revealed severe canal stenosis and diffuse degenerative disease in his lumbar.

In 2008, patient was diagnosed with severe spinal stenosis, and the doctor recommended surgery. Patient agreed, and it was performed that April.

When plaintiff awoke from surgery, he realized he was unable to move any of his lower extremities. He had no sensation below his thighs. An MRI showed he suffered severe spinal cord infarction during surgery. He now continues to suffer from myelomalacia, which is a softening of the spinal cord characterized by hemorrhaging of the tissue. He remains confined to a wheelchair, and requires help with basic tasks, including management of bladder and bowel functions.

He, his wife and guardian ad litem for his minor son filed a lawsuit against the doctor and surgical center, alleging medical malpractice, negligent infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium.

As part of this action, plaintiffs sought all documents revealing the doctor’s complaint and complication rate for this particular surgery dating back the previous four years. The hospital responded by submitting heavily-redacted documents for 14 surgeries, with indications that “no issues were (were) noted.”

Upon deposition, however, the doctor said he had compiled a list of 44 procedures he completed in that time. Plaintiffs filed a request for those documents, and copies were produced that were also heavily redacted. Plaintiffs then filed a motion to compel the operative notes and discharge summaries of all surgeries noted by the doctor during this time. Defendants objected, but after a hearing, the trial court granted the motion in part.

The court agreed on the merit of plaintiff’s argument that the credibility of the defendant and details of operative technique were relevant. However, the court did order all identifying information of patients should be redacted.

Defendant appealed this order, arguing such records are immune from discovery based on patient privacy laws, which allow production of these records only in exceptional circumstances. Here, the appellate court indicated the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding the release of former patient records was necessary to the proper administration of justice.

Contact our North Carolina medical malpractice lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Brewer v. Hunter et al., Sept. 2, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Carpenter v. Kenneth Thompson Builder – Claim-Splitting Barred, Sept. 11, 2014, Charlotte Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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