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Health Care Provider’s Duty to a Third Party Pt. 1

warningAs the end of the work day approaches, the streets are congested with employees exiting the premises to call it quits for the day.  Highways jam up with cars and trucks lining the road hoping to make it home before an unsavory hour.  In the month of December this situation can be magnified due to the unforeseen nature that New England weather bestows upon us.  This is something we have come to expect.  However, on December 10, 2011, when Richard Medina was traveling home from work, traffic and weather were the least of his concerns.

On that day, Robert Riskind was also traveling home from work and suffered a grand mal seizure.  As a result, he lost control of his vehicle and hit Mr. Medina.  The seizure that Mr. Riskind suffered was caused by an inoperable brain tumor that he had been receiving treatment for.  Dr. Hochberg had diagnosed him and was treating him for said condition.  As a result of the accident, Mr. Medina sustained serious and severe personal injuries that entailed a multitude of surgeries.

Mr. Medina brought a cause of action predicated in negligence against Dr. Hochberg, alleging that he owed a duty of care to him to control his patient’s behavior.  Additionally, Mr. Medina claimed that the doctor breached this duty of care by failing to warn Mr. Riskind not to drive.  After a few complicated procedural moves, the case was ultimately dismissed on the basis that the Plaintiff had not submitted enough material facts in dispute that rose to a triable level.  The Plaintiff appealed his case.

The issue on appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts was whether a medical professional (other than a mental health professional) owes a duty to a third party arising from any claimed special relationship between the medical professional and the patient.  The court concluded that no such duty exists.  Further, the court held that Dr. Hochberg did not owe a duty of care to Mr. Medina under ordinary negligence principles.

The Plaintiff, Mr. Medina, attempted to argue that the case was similar to Coombes v. Florio in which it was decided that a physician owes a limited duty to third parties that are foreseeably at risk from a patient’s decision to operate a motor vehicle when the known side effects of the medications the physician has prescribed might impair the patient’s ability as a motorist.  The court distinguished this matter from the Coombes case holding that the limited duty recognized in Coombes is based on a doctor’s affirmative decision to prescribe a drug with known side effects.  “In prescribing medication, a physician has created the possibility that the patient might decide to operate a motor vehicle while taking it, experience a known side effect, and cause bodily injury to a nonpatient.  Thus, a physician’s decision to prescribe medication to his patient creates or increases the risk of harm to the general public.”

However, the risk that Mr. Riskind had cannot be causally traced to any decision or medication prescribed by Dr. Hochberg.  Mr. Riskind’s seizure was a symptom of a naturally occurring brain tumor.  As the court further held, the “simple act of accepting Riskind as a patient, with his preexisting medical condition, cannot be the basis for imposing a duty on Dr. Hochberg to an unlimited number of people with whom he has no relationship, with attendant liability for harm caused by the effects of the medical condition … not caused by any act of Dr. Hochberg.”

To read more on the case referenced above, please read Medina v. Hochberg.  If you believe you have a medical malpractice case, our office can help you. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.