State ex rel. Udall v. Superior Court In and For County of Apache

Decision Date13 June 1995
Docket NumberCA-SA,JV-95-036,No. 1,R,1
Citation183 Ariz. 462,904 P.2d 1286
PartiesSTATE of Arizona, ex rel. Stephen G. UDALL, Apache County Attorney, Petitioner, v. SUPERIOR COURT for the State of Arizona, In and For the COUNTY OF APACHE, the Honorable Michael C. Nelson, a judge thereof, Respondent Judge, MINOR IN APACHE COUNTY JUVENILE ACTION NUMBEReal Party in Interest. 95-0117.
CourtArizona Court of Appeals
OPINION

WEISBERG, Presiding Judge.

The state has filed this petition for special action seeking review of the trial court's grant of a protective order which prohibited discovery of the medical records of a juvenile charged with first degree murder. Because we conclude that the records are not protected by the physician-patient privilege, we accept jurisdiction and grant relief.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On March 24, 1995, the juvenile gave birth to a full term infant in the bathroom of a friend's home. The friend discovered them soon thereafter and noticed that the baby was breathing. The juvenile told the friend that she did not want the baby and wanted the friend to help her "get rid of it." The friend then left the bathroom to contact her mother, who was not at home. When the mother arrived, she found the baby dead. Against the juvenile's protests, paramedics were called who transported her to the hospital.

At the hospital, the juvenile was examined by Dr. Gregory C. Moran, an obstetrician. A member of the hospital staff then contacted the sheriff's office. An autopsy of the infant revealed evidence of blunt injuries to the head, neck, and trunk, as well as evidence of asphyxial injury. The infant's death was attributed to unexplained trauma.

The juvenile was charged with first degree murder and, after a hearing, was detained by the court. Prior to a scheduled transfer hearing, the state requested the production of the medical records of Dr. Moran and the hospital. The juvenile moved for a protective order prohibiting the production of the medical records, arguing that they were protected by her physician-patient privilege. The court granted the protective order.

The state then filed a petition for special action in this court seeking review of that ruling. We granted an interlocutory stay of the proceedings pending our resolution of the matter. We accepted special action jurisdiction in this case because the state has no adequate remedy by appeal: if the state's inability to obtain this information were to result in its failure to show probable cause at the transfer hearing, it would have no right to appeal. See State v. Superior Court, 170 Ariz. 339, 341, 823 P.2d 1347, 1349 (App.1991). Moreover, because the issue presented involves only the interpretation of a statute, it is purely a question of law and of statewide importance. See Matera v. Superior Court, 170 Ariz. 446, 447, 825 P.2d 971, 972 (App.1992).

DISCUSSION

Without the patient's consent, the physician-patient privilege prevents a physician from testifying about information necessary for the care of the patient which was acquired while attending that patient. Ariz.Rev.Stat. Ann. ("A.R.S.") § 13-4062. The privilege also applies to related medical records. State v. Morales, 170 Ariz. 360, 363, 824 P.2d 756, 759 (App.1991). The purpose of the privilege is to encourage the full and frank disclosure of medical history and symptoms so that patients will receive the best possible medical care. Id. The privilege is a creature of statute and therefore must be strictly construed. Id.

The state argues that the privilege does not apply to the subject records because A.R.S. section 13-3620(F) has abrogated it when child abuse is at issue. The juvenile responds that A.R.S. section 13-3620 has eliminated the privilege only with respect to a physician's treatment of an abused child, but has not affected a physician's treatment of an alleged abuser. The trial court accepted the juvenile's interpretation.

The interpretation of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Barry v. Alberty, 173 Ariz. 387, 389, 843 P.2d 1279, 1281 (App.1992). The guiding principle of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the legislative intent. Devenir Associates v. City of Phoenix, 169 Ariz. 500, 503, 821 P.2d 161, 164 (1991). When construing a statute, this court looks first to the statute's language; if the language is plain and unambiguous, we will apply it without resorting to other rules of construction. State v. Reynolds, 170 Ariz. 233, 234, 823 P.2d 681, 682 (1992). The statutory provision at issue, however, must be considered in the context of the entire statute of which it is a part. Guzman v. Guzman, 175 Ariz. 183, 187, 854 P.2d 1169, 1173 (App.1993). If the language of the statute is not clear, courts may look to other indicia of legislative intent, such as the subject matter, effects, consequences, and the reason and spirit of the statute. State v. Iniguez, 169 Ariz. 533, 536, 821 P.2d 194, 197 (App.1991).

The pertinent portion of A.R.S. section 13-3620(F) provides:

Except as provided in subsection G of this section, 1 the physician-patient privilege, the husband-wife privilege or any privilege except the attorney-client privilege, provided for by professions such as the practice of social work or nursing covered by law or a code of ethics regarding practitioner-client confidences, both as they relate to the competency of the witness and to the exclusion of confidential communications, shall not pertain in any civil or criminal litigation or administrative proceeding in which a child's neglect, dependency, abuse or abandonment is an issue nor in any judicial or administrative proceeding resulting from a report, information or records submitted pursuant to this section nor any investigation of a child's neglect or abuse conducted by a peace officer or the child protective services of the department of economic security.

The statute's language plainly and unambiguously provides that the physician-patient privilege is abrogated in any case involving the abuse of a child. It does not support the juvenile's contention that the legislature intended to abrogate only the privilege existing between a physician and an abused child. There is simply no such limiting language to be found. The plain and unambiguous language of the statute, therefore, supports the state's interpretation.

The juvenile does not dispute that the plain language of the subsection supports the state's interpretation. Rather, she contends that A.R.S. section 13-3620 is primarily a reporting statute that requires or permits a doctor to report suspected child abuse only after examining the injured child. She therefore argues that the placement of subsection (F) within the context of A.R.S. section 13-3620 makes it clear that the privilege limitation applies only to a physician's examination of an abused child. We disagree.

The juvenile relies on subsection (A), which requires "[a]ny physician 2 ... whose observation or examination of any minor discloses reasonable grounds to believe that a minor is or has been [injured] by other than accidental means" to report that information to the authorities. A.R.S. § 13-3620(A). Assuming arguendo that this subsection applies only in situations where the physician has examined an abused child, it still is the only subsection of the statute that is so limited. The scope of subsection (A), therefore, should not be construed to define and limit the scope of the entire statute.

For example, subsection (B), which the juvenile fails to address, provides:

Any person other than one required to report or cause reports to be made in subsection A of this section who has reasonable grounds to believe that a minor is or has been a victim of abuse or neglect may report the information to [authorities].

A.R.S. § 13-3620(B). This subsection applies to any persons possessing information that gives them reason to suspect child abuse, regardless of how that information was obtained. The number of persons (which could include physicians) and range of situations (which could include medical examinations of patients who are not the child abuse victims) addressed by subsection (B) clearly exceeds the scope of those addressed by subsection (A).

Furthermore, the first sentence of subsection (F) affords immunity from civil or criminal liability to those who file a report pursuant to subsection (B). A.R.S. § 13-3620(F) (granting immunity to any person furnishing a report that is "required or authorized under this section" (emphasis added)). Subsections (B) and (F) thereby broaden the statute's scope far beyond instances where the suspicion of child abuse arises only from the professional observation or examination of the abused child. Accordingly, we conclude that subsection (A) neither defines nor limits the scope of A.R.S. section 13-3620.

In any event, any limitation that might be imposed by subsection (A) would itself be limited to only one of the three scenarios in which the privilege is abrogated by subsection (F). Subsection (F) provides that the physician-patient privilege shall not apply in:

1. "[A]ny civil or criminal litigation or administrative proceeding in which a child's neglect, dependency, abuse or abandonment is an issue;"

2. "any judicial or administrative proceeding resulting from a report ... submitted pursuant to this section;" or

3. "any investigation of a child's neglect or abuse conducted by a peace officer or the child protective services of the department of economic security."

A.R.S. § 13-3620(F). Although the second scenario is dependent upon the filing of a report, the first and third are not. In these scenarios, the physician-patient privilege is not...

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