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A state appeals court averted possible legal disaster for New Jersey hospitals last week, ruling that the Patients’ Bill of Rights Act does not authorize a private cause of action for violations of its provisions. The court, in a case brought by patients who claimed the hospital violated the act by letting a New York Times crew film them for reality television, said the legislative history of the statute made clear that state administrators, not suit-wielding patients, had the power to enforce the act’s rights. The ruling, in Castro v. NYT Television, A-1849-03T2, is important because it reverses a trial judge who last year held that private actions were necessary to keep hospitals accountable. Otherwise, the law would be toothless, Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Louis Locascio found. Had Locascio’s ruling been affirmed, hospitals would have been subject to suits by patients asserting that they had been damaged by failure to abide by the act’s 17 provisions, many of them glittering generalities, such as the one requiring “considerate and respectful” care. Ross Lewin, who argued as an amicus for the New Jersey Hospital Association, said that if the appeals court had agreed with Locascio, “the guarantee is that there would have been tons of new litigation.” Because so many separate rights are protected by the act and so many of the provisions are general, courts would have been asked to create an entire set of definitions of what duties the act required in individual cases, Lewin said. “It would give every plaintiff’s attorney the right to argue there was new law on every subject and all the precedents would be reviewed de novo,” said Lewin, of Princeton, N.J.’s Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf. The provisions, familiar to any patient not too anxiety-ridden to absorb the long forms thrust into his or her hands, include provision of good care, protection of privacy and provision of interpreters in communities with substantial numbers of non-English-speaking residents. The losing plaintiffs’ lawyer, Gerald Clark of Shrewsbury’s Lynch Martin, said “the ruling is that we have a bill of rights that has no teeth. It’s meaningless.” The plaintiffs in the suit are emergency room patients filmed at Jersey Shore Medical Center in 2001 by a Times crew gathering material for a Learning Channel show, Trauma, Life in the ER. The defendants are the hospital and media companies producing the show. The central cause of action in the suit is a common law privacy violation, but the suit also included claims under the Patients’ Bill of Rights Act, the Consumer Fraud Act and the Wiretap Act.

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