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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Vermont Supreme Court rules for nurse who told cop about patient planning to drive drunk


By Payton Kuhn | May 29, 2019

MONTPELIER, Vt. (Legal Newsline) – The Vermont Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court's judgment in a case involving a nurse's disclosure to a police officer that the plaintiff was intoxicated and intending to drive home after receiving treatment from an emergency room.

In a ruling filed on May 17, Justice Harold E. Eaton Jr. affirmed the Washington Unit Superior Court’s original judgment, which had absolved the defendants of liability. Eaton agreed that the nurse’s disclosure to the police officer of plaintiff Elizabeth Lawson’s state at the time of the incident was strictly for the purpose “to mitigate the threat of imminent and serious harm to [the] plaintiff and public.”

The case spawns from an incident in which Lawson drove to Central Vermont Medical Center (CVMC) in May 2014 after lacerating her arm, and upon arrival, a nurse “detected a heavy odor of alcohol,” on Lawson’s breath, the ruling states. 

While attending to her injury, the staff administered an alco-sensor test that revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.215, which is more than two-and-half times over the state's legal limit.

After the treatment, a nurse who was aware that the plaintiff had driven herself to the hospital notified a police officer in the hospital’s lobby of the plaintiff’s inebriated state. The officer proceeded to arrest Lawson on the suspicion of driving while intoxicated, with the charges later dropped by the prosecutor.

However, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the hospital and nurse, alleging that “she incurred damages as the result of the nurse’s negligent disclosure of information obtained during plaintiff’s medical treatment, in violation of the standard of care applicable to medical providers; and CVMC’s inadequate training and failure to develop policies regarding the disclosure of information obtained during medical treatment,” the ruling states.

By applying standards outlined under Vermont’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability statute, Eaton found that "nothing in the record suggests that the nurse supplied the information to the officer for any reason other than her good-faith belief that the information was necessary to prevent plaintiff from driving drunk from the hospital and endangering herself and the public,” and that the plaintiff failed to prove the nurse hoped the disclosure would lead to the plaintiff’s arrest or prosecution.

Eaton was joined in the decision by justices Paul L. Reiber, Marilyn S. Skoglund, Beth Robinson and Judge David Howard, who was called specifically for this case.

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