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Supreme Court shields medical referral information

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In a case that started with a woman falling in a YMCA parking lot, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday shielded a plaintiff from being forced to disclose whether her attorneys referred her to medical providers.

The Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, said forcing such a disclosure would violate attorney-client privilege.

"That the plaintiff was treated by a particular doctor is an underlying fact," said the 16-page majority opinion written by Justice Peggy Quince and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis. "That the plaintiff received a referral to see a particular doctor is also an underlying fact. However, whether the plaintiff's attorney requested that the client see a certain doctor requires the plaintiff to disclose a part of a communication that was held between the plaintiff and attorney, and we resist any attempts to separate the contents of communications to distinguish 'facts' from privileged information. To hold otherwise would severely undermine the purpose of the privilege, which is to encourage the free flow of information between attorneys and their clients."

The ruling came in an Orange County case that started when Heather Worley fell in a YMCA parking lot.

She later retained the law firm Morgan & Morgan P.A., which filed a negligence lawsuit against Central Florida Young Men's Christian Association Inc.

The suit, in part, sought to recover the costs of treatment that Worley received from Sea Spine Orthopedic Institute, Underwood Surgery Center, and Sanctuary Surgical & Anesthesia, according to court records.

But defense attorneys sought to determine if the Morgan & Morgan firm referred Worley to the physicians.

The YMCA suspected a "cozy relationship" between the law firm and physicians because of the amount of the medical bills, Thursday's majority ruling said.

Justice Ricky Polston, in a dissent joined by justices Charles Canady and Alan Lawson, wrote that information about possible referral relationships should not be shielded from disclosure.

"The discovery is directed to the referral relationship between Morgan & Morgan and the providers, including how much money the providers received from the firm and its clients," Polston wrote. "The financial relationship between a law firm and medical provider, including number of referrals, frequency, and financial benefit, is admissible evidence regarding the bias of a testifying medical provider. Accordingly, this information is relevant and subject to discovery."