Injured? You May be Covered: Court Of Appeals Extends the Duty of Care Owed by Medical Providers to Members of the General Public

— By Andrew Stewart

Davis v. South Nassau Communities Hosp., 2015 NY Slip Op 09229 (December 16, 2015).

Abstract: The Court of Appeals recognized a legal duty owed by medical providers to a non-patient, third party even in the absence of a special relationship. In doing so, the Court has joined the trend of other States, expanding the duty of care jurisprudence to include members of the general public.

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In 2009, Lorraine Walsh drove herself to the Hospital and was checked into the emergency room. At 11:00 AM, two medical professionals (collectively with the Hospital referred to as “Defendants”) intravenously administered Dilaudid, an opioid narcotic painkiller and Ativan, a benzodiazepine drug. Examination of the warning labels supplied with the drugs, in addition with testimony elicited by an expert, established that the common side effects of Ativan include “sedation, dizziness, and disorientation”, which can create a “sedative/hypnotic” state. Additionally, Dilaudid can be up to eight times as powerful as morphine, with effects lasting between two to four hours. Dilaudid’s warning labels explicitly warn against the dangers of “driving a car or operating machinery.” Nevertheless, the two medical professionals at the Hospital failed to warn Walsh about the dangers of driving after receiving the medications. At 12:30 PM, only 90 minutes after administration of both drugs, Walsh was released from the hospital. Nineteen minutes later, she crossed the double centerline and crashed into another vehicle, seriously injuring the driver, Edwin Davis.

Davis filed suit alleging medical malpractice because Defendants failed to warn Walsh of the effects of the medication. His wife also alleged a derivative action for loss of consortium. Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, which was granted by the trial court. The Appellate Division affirmed, stating that the Defendants did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff because of the lack of a physician-patient relationship (that relationship existed between Walsh and Defendants, not Davis).

The Court of Appeals disagreed. It concluded that the duty of care extended to Davis: “the defendants owed to plaintiffs a duty to warn Walsh that the medication administered to her either impaired or could have impaired her ability to safely operate an automobile.”

Before reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeals reviewed New York’s history of evaluating duty questions in the context of the medical profession. It noted the court’s precedent had been reluctant to impose a duty of care to “the general public” because it consists of “indeterminate, faceless, and ultimately prohibitively large class of plaintiffs, as opposed to a

‘known and identifiable group.’” The Court had only recognized a small exception for “special relationships.” Special relationships were limited to “members of a patient’s immediate family or household who may suffer harm as a result of the medical care a physician renders to that patient” because those plaintiffs are of a definable class. Importantly, the Court noted it had expanded the duty in such cases because the third party’s injury resulted from the physician’s performance of the duty of care owed to the patient [emphasis added]. The Court, therefore, concluded it had left the door open to expand the duty of care between a treating physician who takes the affirmative step of administering medication, but fails to warn the patient of the dangers of operating a motor vehicle, to a member of the general public who is affected by that omission [emphasis added].

In the instant case, the Court imposed a duty of care extending from the Defendants to Davis. In parting from previous decisions, the court identified several others factors that are used to calculate whether a duty should exist. Those include capacity of the parties to bear the loss, a policy of preventing future injuries, and the moral blame attached to the wrongdoer. Further, the Court quoted Prosser and Keaton; “no better general statement can be made than that the courts will find a duty where, in general, reasonable persons would recognize it and agree that it exists.” Torts § 54 at 359 {5th Ed. 1984).

Here, the Defendants took affirmative step to administer medication, but had failed to warn the patient about the risks to driving. Their failure to warn created a peril affecting every driver in Walsh’s vicinity. A duty of care must be imposed on medical professionals in this scenario, said the Court, because the “cost” of imposing the duty is small: he or she must simply warn the patient of the dangers. Physicians often advise patients of the risks of certain medications; requiring them to do so imposes no additional, significant obligations. Just as a pharmacist administers warnings to a patient that prescribed medication could impair the ability to drive when the patient picks up his or her prescription, a medical provider should be required to take a similar, simple prophylactic measure [emphasis added]. Furthermore, the Court recognized that other States extend the duty of care from the physician to members of the general public to warn the patient about adverse side effects of medications when the physician has administered the medication, or in other ways has treated the patient.

“This is an instance in which defendants’ ‘relationship with. . .the tortfeasor. . .placed them in the best position against the risk of harm.’” Therefore, the Court concluded that the Defendants owed a duty of care to Davis as a third party member of the general public.

Posted in Article Archive, Health Law, Legal Pulse, New York Court of Appeals, Tort Law