Doctors owe a duty of care to their patients. They must make the patient their first concern and practice medicine safely and effectively. If that duty of care is breached and the patient suffers harm, the doctor may be legally responsible.
Similarly, courts have found that doctors have a duty to warn patients about the risks and complications of the drugs they prescribe. For example, let's say your doctor prescribes a drug that may cause you to become drowsy, but the doctor fails to mention this possible side effect. If you are injured in an accident while driving after taking the drug, you may have grounds to file a medical malpractice lawsuit against the physician and the hospital.
But does that duty to warn extend to third parties who are injured? If you took a prescription drug and you were not warned by your doctor that it might cause you to become drowsy and you cause an accident, what legal rights does an injured third party have?
Groundbreaking Ruling: Third Parties Can Sue Hospitals
According to a Dec. 16, 2015, New York Court of Appeals decision, a third party injured in such an accident can file a medical malpractice lawsuit against a doctor and the hospital. This significant ruling alters the longstanding law that the duty of care does not extend beyond the patient. The Court of Appeals reinstated a medical malpractice lawsuit against a Long Island hospital and a physician's assistant in the case of Davis v. South Nassau Communities Hospital.
According to the court documents, Lorraine Walsh was treated at South Nassau Communities Hospital for abdominal pain on March 4, 2009. She was given several medications, including a narcotic medication, to reduce the pain. About 20 minutes after she was discharged from the hospital, she fell unconscious while driving, crossed a double yellow line and allegedly collided with a bus. The bus driver, Edwin Davis, was injured and filed a lawsuit claiming medical providers at the hospital failed to warn Walsh that the drugs she was prescribed could impair her ability to drive. Davis' lawsuit was dismissed by a lower court. The judge concluded the doctor and physician's assistant owed no duty of care to the bus driver. The Appellate Division: Second Judicial Department affirmed the ruling in Davis et al. v. South Nassau Communities Hospital et al.
But in a 4-2 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that medical providers have a duty to warn patients of the possible danger from drugged driving that extends to third parties. Dissenting judges argued that the duty is restricted to the patient. In the ruling, Judge Eugene Fahey wrote that courts have "historically proceeded carefully and with reluctance to expand an existing duty of care."
However, he noted that the extension to the injured third party was warranted in this case. He cited the 1916 opinion in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., a groundbreaking decision that created a new products liability standard. In the 100-year-old decision, Judge Benjamin Cardozo wrote "the principle that the danger must be imminent does not change, but the things subject to the principle do change. They are whatever the needs of life in a developing civilization requires them to be."