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What is a Breach of Confidence?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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Breach of confidence is a type of tort, or civil wrong, involving the unauthorized release of confidential information, leading to harm experienced by the plaintiff. People can file suit for it and recover damages. The amount of the damage award will depend on the harm experienced and the circumstances of the breach; in some cases, punitive damages may be awarded beyond the original damages to turn the case into an object lesson for people considering similar betrayals of confidentiality.

Treatment of such cases in court depends on the jurisdiction. Generally, someone must have authorized access to confidential information, paired with a duty of confidentiality, to be taken to court. Some professional relationships, like doctor-patient and attorney-client relationships, include a duty of confidentiality, with people disclosing confidential information with the understanding that it will not be passed on or released without permission.

It is possible for people to have access to such information without necessarily having a duty of confidence, and these individuals cannot be sued for breach of confidence. Likewise, stealing or gaining access in an authorized way will not result in such a lawsuit, as the person using the confidential information unscrupulously has no duty of confidentiality.

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The case must also demonstrate that the information was used to the detriment of the plaintiff in the case. While disclosing confidential information carelessly is always frowned upon, if the plaintiff didn't experience any harm, the violation is not treated as a breach of confidence case. Sharing confidential information in a way that harms someone's reputation, business, or other interests would be grounds for a suit, as the plaintiff could argue that the defendant's actions led to actual damages.

In court, people must be able to define the relationship of the parties involved, using this to argue that the person who shared information without consent did so in violation of his or her responsibilities, and must be able to document damages experienced as a result of the shared information. After hearing the matter in court and reviewing supporting documentation, a decision can be made about whether a breach occurred, and what kinds of damages should be awarded. Disclosures of highly personal and potentially compromising information, like infection with a sexually transmitted disease, can come with particularly high damages, as the court recognizes the damage to the reputation of the plaintiff involved in the release of such information.

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Discuss this Article

amypollick
Post 23

@anon349270: First, get a copy of your prescription from the pharmacy where you had it filled. Also get a *notarized* note from the pharmacist that you haven't had it refilled. That way, your husband can't use it against you in court.

Second, call the medical licensing board in your state and report this idiot doctor. I would agree this was a serious breach of confidentiality.

anon349270
Post 22

We are already in divorce proceedings and my doctor revealed a confidential lab test result to my soon to be ex-husband which resulted in major problems. Can I sue?

It was a drug test that came back positive for a drug that he had written for me two months earlier for cancer surgery. He told my ex husband I tested positive for oxycodone and hammered me saying, "Where did you get this?" Uh, you prescribed it two months ago and I still have half the bottle.

It so happened my soon to be ex had a doctor's appointment the same day about the same time and as we were in different exam rooms, when the doctor wanted to discuss my "drug problem," he called my ex in the room!

I assumed the cancer was back when he came flying in the room with my ex. What a nightmare. Plus, I had my 7 year old with me.

amypollick
Post 21

@anon343750: Try contacting Christopher Elliott. He has a website and is a travel/consumer advocate and ombudsman. I think he might be able to help you. Good luck.

anon343750
Post 20

My wife and I booked a trip through one of the major airlines. Another couple (our friends) has booked the exact same trip on their own. After a few days, there were some changes in our itineraries (because of some airline issues) and the airline has accommodated us on a different flight. The other couple has called the airlines and asked to email them our itinerary so they can make the same changes! And the airline emailed our itinerary without proper authorization. The itinerary has some personal information which we never intended to share with them! We were surprised how airlines could send our itinerary to someone who is not on the itinerary without proper authorization/authentication! Is this considered breach of confidential information?

anon332994
Post 19

I had a consultation with a lawyer whom I did not retain. He had represented both my husband and me as a couple in the past and has now been retained by my husband. I had a consultation with him, but due to the urgency of needing legal help and his busy schedule, did not retain him. My husband did!

He forwarded notes made during our initial meeting to my current lawyer without my knowledge or consent. Can he do this? He also does not have a lot of the details that were discussed during our meeting. In my opinion, he had a full understanding of my case and even gave me advice. Should he be able to represent my ex?

anon332241
Post 18

My soon to be ex-husband has documents with information about my health, including my social security disability application. Is it legal for him to disclose this information to anyone else?

He wants to introduce these documents into evidence in a court proceeding. This information is immaterial and probably not admissible as evidence. If he shows this information to his attorney or anyone else, is that legal?

anon329631
Post 17

My psychiatric doctor is letting me and my family stay in her home while she leaves the country for business for a year and we are going to house sit and take care of her animals.

She is now kicking us out because we have problems that she already knew about by seeing us on a professional level for years, but she did something wrong. A family member living here a few years ago tried to kill herself and ended up going to a psych ward and getting help, as well as following up with her for years to come.

The other day, she said she wanted this family member to get weapons out of the house, even though they

had none here and she said it in front of the entire family and her son. None of these people knew about the incident that happened years ago, and that she didn't want weapons in the house because this person tried harming herself. She said a few other things in front of the family and her son that this person did not want anyone knowing and as a result, my family and I have to move out of the house.

This family member is very emotionally hurt because this psych doctor has been her doctor for years and she thought the doctor cared and thought she wanted to help and now she feels very betrayed.

Can they sue for this since we are being kicked out for this incident and because they are very emotionally hurt and will probably need a few more years of counseling due to this incident? Please let me know what you all think.

anon323828
Post 15

I live with my boyfriend. We have a daughter together. A month ago he was in the ER and diagnosed with meth abuse. I have filed for custody and submitted the paper he got from the ER stating his diagnosis and treatment. It was in our house in our important papers. He says he is filing charges against me. Can I get in trouble for that? I didn't steal it, it was in our home.

anon315660
Post 14

I have suspected that my (Minnesota) wife has bipolar disorder. We both have had the same primary physician for many years. I have never broached the bipolar subject with her because I am afraid to.

I would like to make an appointment with my (our) primary to discuss my ideas, but I want to know if it will be in strict confidence. Am I safe to disclose private information about my wife in confidence?

anon311046
Post 13

A friend of mine and also my co-worker knows a lot about my boss's past life. She has some kind of secrets hidden related to her three unwanted children. My lady boss was married to his husband for almost seven years. She kept the secrets of leaving three children behind. Since we were close to each other at the office, out of trust, she shared this information with us. But one of my co-workers wants to use this information against my lady boss, so that he can get what he wants and my boss cannot protest. What would be the possible grounds for this? Please help.

anon294061
Post 12

I am a pastor. This past summer things were going poorly with one of my church members and their daughter. They sent me an email explaining the situation. Within the contents of the email, the author disclosed a diagnosis, and the fact that her daughter was being medicated for the diagnosis.

After responding to this email wanting to help, rumors and other types of comments began surfacing that I didn't care about this problem. There were members of my congregation who were angry because they said I wasn't willing to help this person. So, I went into my "sent email" box on the old iPad and sent out my response to the person's email. It wasn't until the next day

that I found out what had happened. The person's email was below my email that I had sent to others.

I knew this was an error on my part so I immediately apologized and explained what was going on.

Now the person wants to level a HIPAA violation on me. I have a few problems with this. I wasn't trying to hurt this other individual, but to uphold the ministry which was being defamed. I admit it was my error to accidentally send the email, but that wasn't my intent. I only wanted to send my email. Are there any grounds for legal action against me?

KLR650
Post 11

I am a law student and they constantly hammer on us the importance of keeping confidentiality with our clients. We can get sued for huge money, and face discipline with the bar association and even lose our licenses if we reveal a client's private information.

Even in non-licensed occupations, there is often a standard confidentiality agreement in a contract between companies or individuals. You frequently need access to trade secrets and other business data even before you start doing business with someone, and that information has to be protected. Breaching these agreements can ruin your reputation, and your bank account.

BigManCar
Post 10

@kylee07drg - I would think that there is no exception to the privacy laws that allows a doctor to share anything with a spouse. I am sure many of them do, but they are not allowed to do so. If it caused a divorce and the parties involved can prove it, I would certainly think that they can sue.

In fact, there can be criminal penalties for doing something like that. Worst case, the doctor's practice could be in jeopardy.

People who have jobs where personal information is obtained don't always realize what letting even a few words slip can do to them. The old saying in World War II was "loose lips sink ships", and it's very true.

Viktor13
Post 9

@Perdido - That is an incredible story. The priest must have really struggled with the ethical implications of informing on the man who came to him. Looks like it worked out in this case and prevented a terrible tragedy.

That kind of situation is really a double-edged sword. If you do inform, you can get into trouble and possibly ruin the reputation of someone who had broken no law. If you don't you may allow a serious harm to come to someone.

If the priest had not been right, he could have gotten in real trouble. Good thing for everyone he was right. Well, good for everyone but the child molester, who got what he deserved.

backdraft
Post 8

For me there is really nothing more unforgivable than telling a person secrets and then having them tell others.

I think about it like this. If you tell someone something in confidence there are two facts about that piece of information. First, it is probably sensitive. It is something about yourself or others that you don't want many people to know. Second, by sharing that info with a person you imply that you trust them and you make a pact to keep it to yourselves.

If you betray that confidence it is a huge act of disrespect and can have serious consequences. I guess what I'm saying is, keep your secrets.

Azuza
Post 7

@SZapper - Good point. I never thought of the possible professional consequences for something like this.

Honestly, I wouldn't want to have a job that involved confidentiality. What if someone tells you something that you feel like you have to disclose to the authorities?

I know in certain instances you can disclose things to the authorities, like if someone is considering hurting themselves or others. But I'm pretty sure in other instances you just have to keep your mouth shut. It sounds way too stressful for me!

SZapper
Post 6

I think breach of confidence should be taken very seriously. Even though you can't be sued for breaching confidence if there are no damages, you could still experience professional repercussions.

For example, I'm pretty sure a lawyer could get disbarred for breaching lawyer-client confidentiality. Even if they aren't getting sued, their career would still be over.

As far as doctors, breaching patient confidentiality is a violation of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). A doctor can definitely experience other legal penalties if they violate HIPAA. I think this would also affect a doctor's career.

SarahSon
Post 5

My dad has worked as a pastor for more than 50 years. During this time he has counseled many people and been told many things in confidence.

There is a certain trust that many people naturally put in someone in his position. He always took this very seriously and never did anything so people would not trust him with their confidences.

He was never taken to court or accused of breaching any confidence, but I know of pastors where this has happened. I don't really know how a clergy relationship compares to a doctor or attorney/patient relationship, but would think there would be many similarities.

Perdido
Post 4

A man in my neighborhood tried to sue a priest for breach of confidence. He might have won if authorities hadn’t found a child being held in his basement during the trial.

He confessed to the priest that he had been having urges to kidnap children and keep them as slaves. He admitted that these urges were very strong, and he even had dreams every night about it.

When a local kid in the church went missing, the priest felt it was his duty to mention this man to the police. He broke confidentiality, but he did it for the right reason.

The man had not taken that particular child. In fact, he didn’t take one until

the trial was already underway. It appeared that he might actually get this priest in legal trouble.

However, when another neighborhood child went missing, a kid reported last seeing him with this man. When the cops searched his home, they found the kid locked in the basement.

shell4life
Post 3

@kylee07drg - When a person fills out their medical information sheet at a doctor’s office, they are required to authorize the release of information to whomever they want. If they leave this section blank, then no one should get that information.

If your cousin never authorized the doctor to release information to his wife, then technically, this was a breach of confidence. I’m not sure if the court would take into account the nature of the slip-up or not.

It’s possible that they might have pity on the doctor in this case, since he didn’t do it intentionally or maliciously. Also, people tend not to side with someone who has been proven to cheat on their spouse.

kylee07drg
Post 2

Does anyone know if a doctor can legally share a person’s medical information with their spouse without authorization? My cousin’s doctor did, and he is considering suing him, because it resulted in a divorce.

My cousin never told the doctor that his wife didn’t know he had an STD. When she went to the same doctor for an exam, he told her she had the same STD as her husband. She knew nothing about this, and she was furious that he didn’t tell her. She also knew it meant he had cheated on her.

He had cheated on her in the past, but he was a changed man at that point. Despite his improved behavior, he wound up losing her.

StarJo
Post 1

There was a case of breach of confidence in my town around election time. One politician had paid a large sum to the psychologist of his opponent to obtain information to use against him in his campaign. I personally don’t know what the psychologist was thinking, because obviously, no one had access to this information but him, so his practice would be ruined if he participated. Indeed, it was ruined.

The politician buying the information got such a heavy fine that he could no longer afford to support his own campaign. He had to drop out of the race. Probably not many people would have voted for him after it came out that he paid off a shrink to destroy his opponent.

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