Hospital Must Disclose Fired Nurse’s Personnel File in PA Medical Malpractice Case

Posted in Medical Malpractice, Wrongful Death

Access to a nurse’s personnel file became a key issue in a recent PA medical malpractice wrongful death and survival action. In Snyder v. DeCesare, the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County considered whether plaintiffs were entitled to disclosure of the personnel file of defendant Heather Shingler, RN. Plaintiffs alleged that their unborn child died in utero due to negligent fetal monitoring by the nurse, who was subsequently terminated from her employment with defendant Moses Taylor Hospital.

Plaintiffs sought a court order to compel production of the nurse’s personnel file, alleging a nexus between her termination of employment and her alleged negligent fetal monitoring. Defendants claimed there was no connection between the two events. Also, Nurse Shingler denied that her termination was related to the facts alleged in this case.

Defendants filed a discovery objection related to the personnel file. Plaintiffs filed a motion to overrule the objection. Because the nurse’s termination did not go before a peer review committee, the Peer Review Protection Act did not apply.

Plaintiffs argued that the nurse’s termination is relevant to show bias, credibility, and competence in patient care, including interpreting and reporting fetal monitoring. Plaintiffs also argued that the nurse’s termination may have been the result of a progressive discipline protocol and the alleged negligent care at issue here may represent a segment of such progressive discipline.

Defendants alleged that the requested documents are not relevant, are overly broad and are not reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Defendants noted that that the nurse’s termination did not occur until eight months after the time-frame of the facts alleged in this case and that the plaintiffs’ claims of bias and credibility are matters for the jury.

Both plaintiffs and defendants cited Shedlock v. UPMC Presbyterian, Inc. in support of their respective positions. The Shedlock court applied a two-part test to determine whether the plaintiff failed to show how the care provided by the defendant doctor was related to the alleged negligence.

First, a plaintiff seeking discovery must show that a relationship exists between the care the employee provided and a specific allegation of negligence in the complaint. Second, a plaintiff has an obligation to explain how any information the plaintiff seeks from the personnel file may assist plaintiff in establishing a claim against the hospital.

Here, plaintiffs convincingly argued that their document request is not the “broad, unfocused discovery request” referenced by the Shedlock court. There is a narrow, focused relationship alleged between the purportedly negligent care provided by the nurse to the deceased infant and the documents requested.

The pleading states that the mother, Mrs. Snyder, was admitted to Moses Taylor Hospital for blood work and fetal monitoring. Nurse Shingler was primarily responsible for the fetal heart monitoring. Plaintiffs allege that Nurse Shingler failed to correctly monitor, interpret, report, and document the fetal heart monitoring. As a result, Mrs. Snyder was sent home and when she returned for a scheduled cesarean section, the baby was already dead in utero.

The court found that this fact pattern prima facie established the relationship between the care alleged and the specific allegations in the complaint, satisfying the first prong of the test.

Plaintiffs argued that Moses Taylor Hospital is vicariously responsible for the negligence of its agent, Nurse Shingler. Plaintiffs raised a plausible argument that the alleged negligent care of the baby may have been a part of progressive discipline leading to the termination of Nurse Shingler. Plaintiffs argued the eight month time span before the nurse’s termination is irrelevant under their theory of progressive discipline and that termination necessarily followed the alleged malpractice. The requests for documents were relevant and reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence, satisfying the second prong of the test.

The court concluded that plaintiffs met the two part test set forth in Shedlock. Balancing the needs of the plaintiffs against the reasonable burden to defendants, the court ordered defendants to produce the requested personnel documents.

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