Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Court Tosses Order Forcing Disclosure of AIDS Information
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal on Friday threw out a Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board order requiring an Oakland children’s hospital to disclose the number, age and gender of children it treated who were infected with HIV over a period spanning nearly 20 years.
Div. Four in an unpublished opinion said the order granting a request by a former employee who said she was infected with the virus at work violated a law against compelling disclosure of information that could identify an individual whose blood has been tested to detect HIV.
Suzanne McKnight sought the information to support her claim for workers’ compensation benefits after she was allegedly infected as a result of contact with an unidentified HIV-infected child while employed in Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland’s Parent Infant Program from 1981 to 1999.
The hospital ultimately acquiesced when McKnight asked it to review its records for information on patients with whom she had potential contact from 1994 to 1996, the period in which doctors concluded she was most likely infected. But the hospital balked at McKnight’s request to look at other years after the initial review showed no HIV-infected patients during that time period.
McKnight worked as an infant development specialist for the Parent Infant Program, which provided services to children under age 3 with developmental disabilities, but did not involve health care or medical treatment. She sought workers’ compensation benefits in 2003 after testing positive for HIV the prior year, contending that she was constantly exposed to children’s bodily fluids.
Speculating that she could have been infected because she gardened frequently and used bleach to clean toys at the program center, leaving her hands dry and cracked or cut, McKnight maintained that she had no documented HIV risk factors insofar as she was in a monogamous, long-term marriage with her husband, who tested negative for the virus, and had no history of hemophilia or blood transfusions. Although she traveled extensively, including a one-month trip to Kenya and Tanzania in August 1996, she said she was not a party to any injections, medical care, injuries, sexual encounters or other identifiable risk factors for infection while out of the United States.
The parties presented conflicting experts on the likelihood that McKnight was infected at work, and after the first review of records showed no HIV-positive patients, McKnight sought information on the number, age and gender of HIV-positive patients with whom she might have had contact during the remainder of her time at the hospital.
The hospital argued that the request violated Health and Safety Code Sec. 120975, which provides that no person may be compelled in a legal proceeding to “identify or provide identifying characteristics that would identify any individual who is the subject of a blood test to detect antibodies to HIV.” It also contended that the information was protected by California’s constitutional right to privacy, but McKnight asserted that the statistical data she sought would not link any particular blood test result to any child.
A workers’ compensation judge agreed with McKnight in 2009 and entered an order for the expanded discovery, which the WCAB upheld. The Court of Appeal, however, vacated the order in an opinion by Presiding Justice Ignazio J. Ruvolo.
Reasoning that the case could be resolved on the basis of statutory interpretation without addressing the constitutional argument, he wrote:
“[E]ven though the discovery order did not require the disclosure of the names of the individuals who have tested HIV-positive, the order still required the production of sufficient identifying information so that the overarching purpose behind section 120975––the ‘absolute’ protection of the identity and privacy of individuals who have taken a blood test to determine their HIV status––would be jeopardized if we allowed this order to be enforced.”
Justices Timothy A. Reardon and Patricia K. Sepulveda joined Ruvolo in his opinion.
The case is Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (McKnight), A127580.
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