NJ Supreme Court Protects Hospital’s Self-Critical Analysis from Discovery
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled in C.A. v Bentolila that a document created by Valley Hospital personnel during its self-critical analysis of an adverse event was shielded from discovery in a subsequent medical malpractice lawsuit. At issue was whether the hospital had complied with the requirements of the Patient Safety Act, passed in 2004, which would provide an absolute privilege for such documents. The case involved a birth injury alleged to have been caused by negligent medical care.
Regulations implementing the act and expanding upon some of its requirements were not adopted until 2008. The document at issue was created after the law was passed, but before the regulations were adopted. In a four/three decision the majority decided that the hospital had substantially complied with the act’s requirements because it had followed requirements contained in the statute. The majority held that the hospital should not be expected to anticipate requirements in future rulemaking. For example, the regulations require that the document be prepared exclusively in the setting of an investigation qualified under the act’s self-critical analysis. The regulations also require that a physician be a member of the Patient Safety Committee that conducts the self-critical analysis.
The Supreme Court opinion construed the Patient Safety Act in light of its legislative purpose–to encourage healthcare providers to work together freely and candidly in a confidential self-critical setting in order to avoid future patient harm deriving from facility system failures. Nevertheless, hospitals and physicians who serve on Patient Safety Committees wishing to analyze system failures in a confidential environment must ensure that each specific regulatory requirement is met in order to avail themselves of the privilege in future litigation.