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Public Health Reporting and Testing

Brief - Liability for negligent reporting of syphilis - Molien v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, 27 Cal. 3d 916, 616 P.2d 813, 167 Cal. Rptr. 831 (Cal. 1980)

In this case plaintiff's wife was misdiagnosed as having syphilis.  While there may have been underling negligence in the diagnosis, the real damages occurred because the physician did not properly report the patient to the public health department.  Instead, since:

"Defendants knew plaintiff husband would learn of the diagnosis, as they instructed Mrs. Molien to so advise him. Thereafter plaintiff was required to undergo blood tests himself in order to ascertain whether he had contracted syphilis and was the source of his wife's purported infection. The tests revealed that he did not have the disease."

Not surprisingly, plaintiff and his wife suffered emotional distress, eventually destroying their marriage.  The court's opinion is a landmark in establishing the parameters for negligent infliction of emotional distress as an element of damages in tort law.  Unsaid is that the real negligence was failing to allow the professionals from the health department to manage the warning of the husband.  While the same emotional damage might have occurred, the physician not have caused it and would have had a strong defense that the decision to warn was made by the public health authorities and was thus sheltered under their discretionary immunity.  It is even possible that they would have reviewed the diagnosis and found it to be erroneous before the damage was done.

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