NY Court: Doctors Owe Duty To Third Parties In Prescribing Drugs

IV drugs

A decision by the highest court in New York has radically redefined the scope of medical malpractice claims. According to the New York Court of Appeals, medical providers including doctors and hospitals have a duty to protect unknown third parties by warning patients when a medication that the provider has prescribed could impair the patient’s driving.

In its December 2015 decision, the Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision that dismissed a bus driver’s lawsuit against a hospital and two treating physicians. The ruling opens the door for negligence lawsuits from third parties who are injured as a result of a doctor’s failure to warn.

Patient crashed 19 minutes after leaving hospital

The court issued its decision in an Albany lawsuit brought by Edwin Davis of Long Island. Davis was injured in a 2009 car accident after a woman, Elaine Walsh, left South Nassau Communities Hospital. Walsh received painkillers at the Oceanside hospital but had not been warned about the effect the drugs would have on her driving.

During treatment for intense abdominal pain, two doctors from the hospital gave Walsh a dose of an opioid narcotic painkiller by IV without warning her that it could impair her ability to drive an automobile safely. Driving herself home from the hospital, Walsh crossed a double yellow line and struck a bus driven by Davis. The hospital had only discharged her 19 minutes earlier.

Third party has standing for malpractice claim

The court ruling is not a finding that the hospital was negligent, but rather that Davis has standing to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit even though he was not a patient of the hospital or the doctors involved. Before the ruling, New York, like most other states, only allowed a third party to sue a medical provider if the third party was a specifically identifiable potential victim of a known risk. A doctor did not owe any duty to a nameless, faceless victim.

In making its departure from the long-standing rule, the court stated, “we conclude that where a medical provider has administered to a patient medication that impairs or could impair the patient’s ability to safely operate an automobile, the medical provider has a duty to third parties to warn the patient of that danger.”

The court also denied Davis’s request to amend his complaint to add a claim for negligence in addition to his claim for medical malpractice. According to its decision, a regular negligence claim was unnecessary because Davis’s allegation rose to the level of medical malpractice even though he was not a member of the doctor-patient relationship at issue.

While admitting that its holding presents a major change, the court majority cited Judge Cardozo in explaining that expanding a duty should be done cautiously but it must be done where it is necessary to meet the changing needs of society. In this instance, protecting innocent motorists from drug-impaired drivers was found to be sufficiently necessary to expand a hospital’s duty.

If you or someone you love has been the victim of prescription drug-related accident, you may be entitled to compensation for your pain, suffering and economic losses.

Call The Sanders Firm today at 1.800.FAIR.PLAY to speak with an experienced New York medical malpractice attorney and discuss your options for legal recourse. ResourcesNY Courts, Davis v. South Nassau Communities Hospital, et al., https://www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/Decisions/2015/Dec15/163opn15-Decision.pdf