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Judge orders medical malpractice payout records released

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    News Media Update         NEW JERSEY         Freedom of Information    

Judge orders medical malpractice payout records released

  • A Superior Court judge in New Jersey ordered the state to disclose information about medical malpractice settlements to The (Bergen County) Record even when the records are covered by confidentiality provisions.

New Jersey has until March 23 to publicly release all state records of settlements, judgments and arbitration rulings in medical malpractice cases, a Superior Court judge in Hackensack ruled last week.

Judge Sybil Moses ordered the state to make public “review notices” of medical malpractice payments made by insurance companies on behalf of doctors. The state has 30 days from the Jan. 23 ruling to release the records to doctors. Doctors will then have 30 days to dispute the accuracy of those records before they are released to The (Bergen County) Record which requested them.

The state claimed that because some notices from the Medical Practitioner Review Panel are covered by confidentiality provisions, they cannot be released under the state Open Records Act. The state also said that the common law right of access would not apply. Moses ruled otherwise, saying that confidentiality agreements do not completely eliminate a common law right of access.

Most malpractice insurance payments have historically been kept from public viewing because of nondisclosure agreements between the litigants. Insurance companies, however, are required under the Professional Medical Conduct Reform Act of 1989 to notify the state Board of Medical Examiners when a payout is made.

The review panel, which is overseen by the board, then examines the facts leading to the payment, and determines if a doctor should be disciplined. Until now, the only cases made public were those in which disciplinary action was taken, allowing the results of a majority of cases to remain undisclosed.

Reporters from The Record first sought the notices to investigate the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance in the state, said Dina Sforza, corporate attorney for the North Jersey Media Group which owns The Record. Reporters were attempting to determine whether insurance premium hikes could be attributed to a small number of physicians with multiple malpractice suits.

“Because of this ruling, residents gain the ability to get more information on the background of a physician they are going to trust their health care to,” Sforza said. She added that disclosure of the notices will also allow review of the panel’s actions and whether or not physicians are being properly punished for their actions.

Steven Kern, an attorney for the Medical Society of New Jersey, told the New Jersey Law Journal that Moses’ ruling will make it “far more difficult” to settle cases. Malpractice cases often get settled because of the allure of nondisclosure, he said. Without that enticement, more cases are likely to go to trial, which Kern admitted is not necessarily a “bad idea.”

(North Jersey Media Group v. New Jersey; Media counsel: Dina Sforza, North Jersey Media Group, Hackensack) MG

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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