Convicted drug traffickers' federal law claim against hospital dismissed

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 22, 2011, 9:29am

AUGUSTA, Maine (Legal Newsline) - The Maine Supreme Court said a lower court did not err in dismissing a couple's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, claim against a hospital.

However, the Court, in a ruling filed April 12, vacated the Oxford County Superior Court's judgment as to the couple's state law claims.

The couple, Dwayne and Debbie Bonney, were being evaluated by emergency room nurses at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, Maine, when a hospital security guard overheard their conversation and reported the information to the local police.

The two were victims of a violent assault that occurred during an invasion of their home in South Paris. Both suffered severe skull fractures.

Police interviewed the couple about the assault and then obtained a warrant authorizing the search of the Bonneys' residence. While conducting their search, investigators found evidence of marijuana cultivation. This evidence eventually resulted in the Bonneys' indictment and subsequent conviction for drug trafficking.

The Bonneys sued the hospital and the unnamed security guard for damages, alleging that the guard violated their rights under both state and federal law by reporting confidential health care information to the police and that they suffered emotional distress as a result.

The hospital moved for summary judgment on the Bonneys' state law claims, arguing that it immunizes health care providers who report assaults to law enforcement when serious bodily injury has been inflicted, even when no written authorization from the patients is obtained.

The hospital also moved to dismiss the couple's federal claim, arguing that HIPAA does not authorize a private cause of action.

The superior court entered a summary judgment in favor of the hospital. The court also dismissed the Bonneys' federal claim because it concluded that no private right of action exists for an alleged violation of HIPAA.

The state's high court, in its 10-page ruling, upheld the HIPAA judgment but vacated the judgment as to the couple's state law claims. It concluded that the immunity established in state law does not apply. Justice Jon D. Levy wrote the Court's opinion.

"The statute does not establish immunity for medical personnel who provide information regarding a victim who has sought medical treatment and is being examined solely for that purpose," the Court wrote.

"Accordingly, the statute does not immunize the hospital or its personnel from damages arising from the security guard's unauthorized disclosure of information concerning the Bonneys to law enforcement."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at

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