May 13, 2013

Massachusetts court prescribes limits on physicians’ duty to third parties

By Massachusetts court prescribes limits on physicians’ duty to third parties

Today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court put a limit on the duty owed by physicians to third parties injured by their patients.  In Medina v. Hochberg, a patient suffered a seizure caused by a rare, inoperable brain tumor, while driving home from work.  The episode caused the patient to lose control of his car, striking and injuring the plaintiff.  A doctor had treated the driver for over a year before the accident occurred.

The injured man sued the driver’s doctor for negligence, claiming the doctor owed him a duty to control his patient or a duty to warn his patient against driving.  But in today’s opinion, the court declined to extend liability to the physician, rightly concluding that the doctor did not have a “special relationship” with the patient nor did the doctor  owe a duty of care to the injured party under ordinary negligence principles.

PLF, with help from  Gregory Broderick (a former PLF attorney) and Katie Konz of Downey Brand in Sacramento, participated as amicus in that case.  PLF argued that a physician’s sole motivation in recommending medical care must be for the well-being of his patient, and courts must avoid interfering in the doctor-patient relationship.  Imposing duties to unknown third parties would warp that relationship, pressuring the doctor to keep one eye on his own potential liability and creating an incentive for doctors to overly restrict patient conduct.  Fortunately, the Bay State’s highest court agreed, allowing area doctors to focus on what they do best: caring for their patients.

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