A two-year statute of limitations applies to an HIV-positive patient who claims one of his doctors improperly disclosed his medical status to a third party without his consent, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled.
A three-judge Appellate Division panel on Thursday in Smith v. Datla rejected arguments from the doctor that the suit should be dismissed as time-barred based on a one-year statute of limitations.
Appellate Division Judge Richard Geiger, joined by Judges Jack Sabatino and Michael Haas in the published opinion, said improper disclosure of a patient’s HIV status amounts to something more akin to a personal injury or discrimination—and not, as the doctor argued, defamation.
According to the decision, the dispute arises out of a single incident that occurred on July 25, 2013, when the patient, given the fictitious name John Smith, was being treated for acute kidney failure by the defendant, Dr. Arvind Datla, who owns a kidney treatment center in Hamilton.
During the treatment, Datla allegedly disclosed Smith’s HIV status to a third person—described as a long-time friend of the plaintiff—who had been unaware that Smith was HIV-positive.
Smith filed his suit in Mercer County Superior Court nearly two years later, on July 1, 2015, alleging violations of his common-law right to privacy, medical malpractice and wrongful disclosure of his medical status under the state’s AIDS Assistance Act.
In his motion to dismiss, Datla argued in large part that Smith’s claims should be governed by the one-year statute of limitations that applies to claims of defamation. Smith countered that he was not claiming defamation, but rather an allegation similar to a personal injury or discrimination, which would be covered by the two-year statute of limitations.
Superior Court Judge Douglas Hurd agreed with Smith that the two-year statute of limitations should apply, and denied Datla’s summary judgment motion. Datla appealed.
“Patients have a privacy right in their medical records and medical information,” Geiger said in affirming Hurd’s ruling. “We find that the claims for unauthorized disclosure of a person’s HIV-positive status align more closely with discrimination claims,” such as those covered by the state Law Against Discrimination and the Civil Rights Act, he added.
The rules regarding defamation claims do not apply, Geiger said, because the information Datla disclosed to the third person was truthful.
“Unlike a typical defamation claim, the confidential information allegedly disclosed to Dr. Datla to the third person was true, not false,” he said. “The disclosed medical information did not place plaintiff in a false light.”
Geiger said there was a “strong public policy” goal and an “important social goal” in maintaining the privacy rights of persons who are HIV-positive.
Smith’s attorney, Craig Hubert, welcomed the ruling.
“My client has been hoping to have his day in court, and the Appellate Division has ensured him of that ability,” said Hubert, of Lawrenceville’s Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader. He added that the AIDS Assistance Act “was meant to provide a greater degree of protection for people with HIV and AIDS.”
“A one-year statute of limitations would provide much less protection and would lead to discrimination and disparate treatment for people who are in that class,” he said.
Datla’s attorney, Mark Petraske of Buckley, Theroux, Kline & Petraske, said an interlocutory appeal to the state Supreme Court is under consideration.
“We had a more than valid argument, given the set of facts,” Petraske said.
Petraske said Datla inadvertently asked Smith for the name of the doctor who was treating him for HIV and was not aware that there was the third person who could hear that discussion.