Court: Physician liability limited in third-party cases

A Massachusetts high court decision centers on physician's duty of care to third parties.

By Tanya Albert Henry — Posted July 20, 2009

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A recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling has eased some physician, hospital and other medical professionals' concerns that people they never treated or had a patient relationship with could file lawsuits successfully against them.

The state's high court said that while physicians may have a duty to a third party directly injured by a medicated patient who drives an automobile from a hospital, they don't have a duty to a police officer injured while responding to the car crash. Justices said that is outside the scope of a foreseeable risk.

The June decision came after a divided 2007 state supreme court ruling allowed a third party to go forward with a lawsuit against a physician. In that case, Coombes v Florio, the family of a child struck and killed by a car alleged that a doctor didn't adequately warn the driver about the dangers of driving while taking a medication.

The court said a physician had a "duty of care" to those foreseeably put at risk by his or her treatment. However, it left open questions about under which circumstances a third party could sue a physician.

In the most recent case, Leavitt v Brockton Hospital, the court clarified some of the issues in Coombes, said William Ryder, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Professional Liability Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1995 to promote reforms in the medical tort and professional liability insurance system.

The foundation, which includes the Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Hospital Assn. and other health organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the hospital and two nurses named in the lawsuit.

"There is quite a bit here in Leavitt that will overcome some of the fears that physicians have of a significant increase in third-party liability," Ryder said. "There were significant concerns that in any case where there was a traffic accident, people would be combing through medical records to see if there was anything to implicate that a physician's action or inaction impacted the driver."

Suit filed after crash

Whitman, Mass., police officer Dean Leavitt filed a lawsuit after a vehicle collided with his police cruiser on Nov. 1, 2004. The officer was on his way to investigate a pedestrian-automobile accident but was injured in a crash before he got there.

The pedestrian involved in the accident that Leavitt was responding to had undergone a colonoscopy earlier that day. He was walking home from the hospital when a car struck him on the side of the road and killed him.

The pedestrian had been given 50 milligrams of meperidine and two milligrams of midazolam for the procedure. But the officer's complaint did not allege the patient was impaired by any medications when he left the hospital.

Leavitt said the hospital and two of its registered nurses owed him a duty of care that was breached when it released the patient without an escort.

The court disagreed.

"The hospital owed no duty to Leavitt to control or detain the patient," justices wrote.

The high court noted that while it has recognized a town having a duty to a third-party motorist injured by an intoxicated driver whom a police officer had permitted to drive on the highway, it has "not previously recognized and do(es) not now recognize, a duty to a third person of a medical professional to control a patient (excluding a patient of a mental health professional) arising from any claimed special relationship between the medical professional and the patient."

The court also agreed with the hospital's argument that it shouldn't be held liable because Leavitt's injury was not caused by any action on the hospital's part.

"The harm that befell Leavitt -- an injury from a collision not involving the patient -- arose not from ... [a situation where] the hospital allegedly should have taken reasonable steps to avoid, but from 'some other danger' [the collision between the police cruiser and another vehicle unrelated to the patient]," justices wrote.

Daniel J. Buoniconti, a lawyer for Brockton Hospital, said he could not comment on the decision because of other pending litigation related to the incident. Leavitt's lawyer, Jeffrey S. Beeler, did not return calls for comment.

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