LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The mother of a slain Little Rock TV anchor can proceed with a lawsuit claiming outrageous behavior by a hospital and three workers who illegally looked at her daughter's medical files, but an invasion of privacy claim must be dropped, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Patricia Cannady's lawyer said they plan to go forward with the suit against St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, where Cannady's daughter, Anne Pressly, spent the last days of her life.
"We expect to be able to present this to a jury so that they can decide whether this behavior is something that can be tolerated in a civilized society," said Gerry Schulze, adding that it's too early to say when that might happen.
Cannady's attorneys argued last month that a lower court judge was wrong to throw out her lawsuit against the hospital.
The justices ruled Thursday that Cannady can sue the hospital for outrageous behavior, because that claim is made on her own behalf, not Pressly's. But they upheld a lower court's ruling that Pressly's family cannot seek punitive damages for invasion of the slain woman's privacy.
"The crux of the (lower) court's order was that the outrage claim failed because it was based on the 'same conduct' as the privacy violation claim," Justice Jim Gunter wrote for the court.
However, neither the hospital nor the lower court cited any legal basis to show that two separate claims can't be based on the same conduct, Gunter wrote.
Justice Paul Danielson agreed with the rest of the court's conclusion, but he wrote that the lower court's order didn't find whether Cannady's claim met the requirements for outrage.
Cannady found 26-year-old Pressly unconscious from a severe beating at her home on the morning of Oct. 20, 2008. Pressly, an anchorwoman at KATV, was taken to St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, where she clung onto her life for five days before dying Oct. 25.
Curtis Vance, who police say was in Pressly's neighborhood to rob homes, was convicted of capital murder in her death and sentenced to life in prison.
Dr. Jay Holland, a family physician who did not treat Pressly, was accused of looking at Pressly's electronic file from home. In 2009, he, Candida Griffin and Sarah Elizabeth Miller pleaded guilty to wrongful disclosure of individually identifiable health information, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. In their plea agreements, all three said they viewed the file out of personal curiosity and didn't pass information to other people.
Griffin is a former emergency room unit coordinator at St. Vincent Health System and Miller is a former account representative at St. Vincent Medical Center in Sherwood.
Attorneys for the hospital and Holland argued that the Pulaski County judge correctly relied on case law going back to the 1880s that says intangible injury claims do not survive after someone's death.
Schulze said Thursday that they plan to take that issue up with lawmakers.
"We are all exposed to intrusions upon our private information and the law is going to have to change," he told reporters. "We're not in the 19th century anymore."
Attorneys for the hospital, Holland, Griffin and Miller didn't return phone messages left Thursday.