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Justice for woman whose private health data was leaked to journalists

Biriuk v. Lithuania |2008
 

Justice for woman whose private health data was leaked to journalists

. . . the protection of personal data, not least medical data, is of fundamental importance to a person’s enjoyment of his or her right to respect for private and family life . . .

 Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, November 2008

Background 

In 2001, a national newspaper ran a front-page story about the HIV status of Gitana Biriuk, a young woman who lived in a remote village in the countryside. The article claimed that the villagers were gripped by the fear of death. 

According to the newspaper, medical staff at a local hospital confirmed Gitana’s HIV status to journalists.

Gitana took legal action against the newspaper for a breach of her right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights. A court ruled in her favour. It found that the information was collected and published without Gitana’s consent, and that the article was not in the public interest but was merely intended to sell newspapers. The court awarded compensation to Gitana. It said that the newspaper had either deliberately sought to humiliate her or had intentionally allowed such negative consequences to occur. 

Gitana did not think the compensation she was awarded made up for the damage done to her life. She decided to appeal against the decision. 

Under Lithuanian law at the time, there were upper limits to the amount of compensation that could be awarded in such cases. The courts ultimately awarded Gitana just €2,892 – three times less than what she was originally given – because she was unable to prove that the newspaper had intentionally published the information in order to degrade her.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that Lithuania had failed to protect Gitana’s right to privacy because the law at the time limited the compensation that could be awarded to victims. Lithuanian law did not sufficiently prevent such outrageous abuses of press freedom. 

The court awarded Gitana €6,500 in compensation.

. . . respecting the confidentiality of health data is crucial not only for the protection of a patient’s privacy but also for the maintenance of that person’s confidence in the medical profession and in the health services in general.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, November 2008

Follow-up 

By the time of the European court’s judgment in Gitana’s case, Lithuania’s new Civil Code (2001) had removed the upper limit on compensation awarded by its courts in such cases.