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Iowa Supreme Court: Patient safety reports are privileged under ‘morbidity and mortality’ statute

by Rox Laird | April 10, 2017

Patient safety reports produced by hospital employees are off limits to discovery in legal proceedings, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday, because confidentiality encourages hospital staff to be comfortable in candidly reporting safety concerns.

Dennis Willard brought a malpractice lawsuit against the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics alleging he suffered injuries when hospital employees mishandled him while he was sedated. Willard argued that he should be able to see a Patient Safety Net (PSN) report filed after the incident, but the state hospital said PSN reports are privileged under state law.

The Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Bruce Zager, agreed with the hospital.

After a 2000 Institute of Medicine study reported that as many as 98,000 people died annually from preventable medical errors in hospitals, the Iowa Legislature passed legislation regarding the collection and distribution of medical information to be used “for the purpose of reducing morbidity or mortality.”

The statute protects “morbidity or mortality” information from liability for damages, and states that it may not be “used or offered or received in evidence in any legal proceedings of any kind.”

Willard argued, however, that Patient Safety Net reports do not fall under the umbrella of morbidity and mortality reports. And he argued that while those reports may not be introduced as evidence in civil litigation, they still may be disclosed in discovery proceedings provided they are not used in court.

The Court disagreed with both lines of argument.

The intent of the Iowa statute is to encourage reporting and analysis of medical errors to improve patient safety, Zager wrote, and “A PSN clearly falls within the legislative intent of ‘any study for the purpose of reducing morbidity or mortality.'”

As for whether the Patient Safety Net report is discoverable so long as it is not used in court, Zager wrote that “the legislature intended . . . to broadly cover ‘any legal proceeding.'”

(Go to On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog, to read our preview of this case.)

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