June 2016 Duty of Care Update

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At the end of the 2015 calendar year the New York Court of Appeals issued a majority decision in the case of Davis v. South Nassau Communities Hospital, 26 N.Y.3d  569 (2015) which expanded the duty that medical providers owe to non-patients.  In this case, the plaintiff (Ms. Davis) was injured when a bus she was driving was hit by a car operated by Ms. Lorraine Walsh.  The crash occurred when Ms. Walsh’s car crossed a double solid line and came into the plaintiff’s lane of travel.  While this sounds like a run of the mill auto accident case, what took it into a new area of law was who the plaintiff named as defendants, that being the hospital and doctors that had provided medical care to Ms. Walsh less than 20 minutes before the crash.

According to the Court, on the day of the crash Ms. Walsh presented to the ER of the defendant’s hospital where she was treated and administered both a narcotic pain medication known as Dilaudid and Ativan.  These medications were well known to cause sedation, dizziness and disorientation which would clearly impair the ability to drive a car.  Despite this, Ms. Walsh was discharged from the hospital only an hour and a half after the drugs were administered and allegedly without any warnings about the side effects the drugs may have on her.  Nineteen minutes after she was discharged, Ms. Walsh (while allegedly impaired by the drugs) caused the crash.

No one would dispute that if these allegations are accurate that Ms. Walsh, as the patient, could have filed a claim against her medical providers but, what about a third party like Ms. Davis?  Did the defendants owe her a duty of care even though she was not a patient?  In a substantial expansion of the scope of the duty a medical provider owes to others, the Court said Yes, Ms. Davis could bring a claim.  Although the courts below both held there was no duty owed to Ms. Davis by the defendants, the COA disagreed and denied the motions to dismiss the case.

The majority reasoned that the defendants’ alleged failure created a peril to any other drivers who crossed paths with Ms. Walsh after she left the hospital and since they were the “only ones” who had the chance to prevent this peril from arising.  The majority contended that this ruling really created no additional burden on the medical providers as they already had an obligation to advise the patient of the side effects.  The Court also clarified that the duty ended at giving the patient the warnings about the drugs as there was no additional duty to prevent patients from leaving their care.

There was a very vigorous dissent which chided the majority for what they felt was an overbroad expansion of prior precedent and warned that such an expansion could perhaps cause doctors to second guess what medications they prescribe.  The second aspect of this argument seems suspect as the duty is to pick or not pick any certain drug but simply to do what they should always do for their patient and warn of the side effects of the drugs they prescribe.  If this pre-existing duty is followed and ends up benefitting third parties as well as patients, how is that a bad thing?