Monday, July 20, 2009

Should You Sign An Auto Insurance Company's "Standard" Medical Authorization?

If you've been in an auto accident, this is what you're going to hear from the at fault party's insurance adjuster over the phone: "Before we get started on your claim or pay any bills, our company policy requires you to sign and return our standard medical authorization."

By signing the authorization, you're giving the insurance company a blank ticket to fish around in your entire medical history, even if it's unrelated to the torn rotator cuff you received due to the crash, to use a simple example. Anything is now fair game for them to get their hands on--counseling, psychological, OB-GYN records-you name it.

I've had clients tell me: "Well, I have nothing to hide." And you shouldn't. Any prior history of any injuries or conditions affecting your collision injuries SHOULD be divulged to your attorney, and the insurance company should know about it as well. We ALL need to know if you have any previous injuries or conditions to any part of your body that was injured in the crash.

But under Ohio law, we have a doctor-patient privilege, even when you are involved in an accident. That privilege still protects medical information that is unrelated to your injury claim. And particularly with elderly clients, insurance companies love to obtain Uncle Joe's medical records 20 years before the drunk driver slammed him and tore his rotator cuff, and then argue "gee, we see that his kidneys were going bad and he had a knee replacement and was on high blood pressure medication, so that rotator cuff tear wasn't that big of a deal."

That's the problem with allowing insurance companies to canvass your unrelated medical records--it allows them to take unrelated, privileged information and paint you as "damaged goods" for the purpose of paying less on your claim.

A recent Ohio case (Wooten v. Westfield Insurance Co, 2009-Ohio-494) ruled that an insurance company had no right to demand that the injured person sign a blank authorization/"blank ticket" until it could be determined by a judge, in private (known as an in camera inspection) as to whether the records sought had any bearing on the person's accident injuries. The attorney in that case did an excellent job of lawyering to protect his client's privacy, and had to go all the way to the Court Of Appeals to do it.

This case sends insurance companies a message: you have no right to demand the right to fish around in a person's past medical history and grab anything you want.

The proper way to handle this is for the attorney to freely divulge what past medical information is related to the client's injury claim, and protect from disclosure what is unrelated. But you won't be afforded that luxury if you talk to the at fault insurance company adjuster over the phone shortly after the crash. Instead, you'll hear the words "company policy" and "mandatory" about 13 times. ALthough it's not the adjuster's fault--after all, he or she is just following company policies, it doesn't mean you have to accept it.

NOTE: This rule MAY be different if your own insurance company is asking you to sign a blank authorization. There's a little fine print clause in your insurance contract known as a "cooperation clause" that may require you to sign your own insurance company's authorization. That's why it's important to ask an attorney about your rights before you sign any papers after an accident.

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