Case questions physician’s duty of care to third parties

Medical professionals owe a duty of care to their patients, but what about others who could be injured by these patients?

A recent case out of New York is gaining the attention of legal professionals throughout the country. The case questions when a physician's duty of care extends to third parties. Generally, these instances are fairly rare — addressing the rare case of a patient's mental illness or contagious illness resulting in injury to others. This case addresses the question of what happens when a patient is not properly warned of the side effect of drugs received while under medical care when the patient is released into the public only to cause an accident that injures others.

The case was brought by the third party against the medical professionals in question. Although lower courts threw the case out, stating physicians only owe this duty of care directly to their patients, the highest court in New York disagreed. Ultimately, New York's Court of Appeals ruled that medical providers have a duty to warn patients of the possible dangers connected to drugged driving and that this duty extends to third parties.

The case in question

Lorraine A. Walsh received medical care in the emergency department of a hospital. During her visit, she received treatment using potent narcotics medications. Shortly after being discharged, Ms. Walsh was involved in a head-on collision with a school bus. The driver of the school bus was severely injured.

The driver brought suit against the medical professionals and argued that the hospital should be held liable for his injuries since Ms. Walsh was given no warnings during discharge that the treatment she received while at the emergency department would impair her driving abilities. Instead, the driver states that Ms. Walsh should have either remained within the hospital until the effects of the medications abated or that she should have been instructed of the dangers of driving while impaired by these medications and/or arranged for a safe method of transportation.

Impact of the case in Pennsylvania

Although the holding of this specific case will not likely have direct authority in Pennsylvania, it could provide some guidance in similar situations. This case also provides an example of the complex nature of personal injury cases. In Pennsylvania, the courts have found that a physician has a duty to warn where a patient makes a threat of harm to a specifically identified or readily identifiable person. Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development, 554 Pa. 209, 720 A.2d 1032 (Pa. 1998).

A physician has a duty to advise his patient as to the risk of spreading a communicable disease to a non-patient family member, where the physician incorrectly advised his patient about the spread of Hepatitis B, resulting in the infection being spread to a non-patient family member. DiMarco v. Lynch Homes, 525 Pa. 558, 583 A.2d 422, 1990 (Pa. 1990); see also Troxel v. A.I. Dupont Institute, 546 Pa. 668, 685 A.2d 547 (Pa. Super. 1996) (holding that a non-patient stated a cause of action where the patient's physician failed to advise the patient of the potential for spreading a virus and a non-patient contracted the disease during her pregnancy).

A physician has a duty of care to properly treat a mother so as not to endanger her future unborn children, as in Matharu v. Muir, 86 A.3d 250 (Pa. Super. 2014), which held that a physician can be held liable for the failure to administer a RhoGAM injection to a patient-mother for the protection of the infant's future pregnancies.