Published January, 1991

Urbaniak v. Newton, 277 Cal. Rptr. 354 (Cal. Ct. App. 1991)

The Court of Appeals for the First District of California held that a patient’s right to privacy was violated when a doctor included the patient’s HIV status, though irrelevant to the examination, as part of a medical report for a workers’ compensation claim. Urbaniak was injured while working as a machine operator and filed a workers’ compensation claim against his former employer. During the course of a medical examination required as part of the legal action, he disclosed to the nurse that he was HIV-positive so that she could take extra precautions in sterilizing the medical equipment that had been used during the tests. The nurse then told the doctor, who included Urbaniak’s status in the medical report, which he sent to the insurance company and the former employer’s legal counsel. The report was then disseminated to the Workers’ Compensation Board and Urbaniak’s chiropractor. Urbaniak filed an action for an invasion of his right to privacy under the California constitution. The court held that his right to privacy was violated by the doctor’s disclosure of his HIV status on the medical report since Urbaniak had revealed his HIV status at a time and for a purpose that had no connection with the medical examination for his workers’ compensation case.

The doctor claimed that he was immune from suit under California law for disclosing the information because the “litigation privilege” protects communications made as part of a judicial proceeding. Although the insurance company and law firm to which the information had been distributed by the doctor had a defense under the litigation privilege, the court found that the doctor had no defense because he improperly used the information about Urbaniak’s HIV status. The information was not part of the examination, was not disclosed directly to the doctor, and it would have been possible to complete his report without mentioning the patient’s HIV status. The court found that the constitutional right to privacy outweighed the litigation privilege in this case.

In 2007, the Supreme Court of California revisited the litigation privilege issue in Jacob B. v. County of Shasta, 56 Cal. Rptr. 3d 477 (Cal. Ct. App. 2007). In that case, the court held that the litigation privilege is absolute and bars all causes of action for invasion of privacy, even those that are constitutionally based. Under this stricter standard, the doctor in Urbaniak may have had a defense because the information he prepared was for litigation. However, given that the doctor heard about Urbaniak’s HIV status from the nurse, not from the patient, and the patient’s HIV status was irrelevant for the purposes of the workers’ compensation claim, the doctor’s claim of privilege may have been barred.