The Duties Owed to Non-Patient Third Parties

A doctor's duty sometimes extends beyond their patient to other third parties that could be affected by the patient's care. Sometimes, doctors are held responsible for failing to inform non-patient third parties about that status of a patient's condition if the doctor is aware that the patient's condition has the potential to cause harm to third-parties.

Liability for non-patient third parties takes different forms in different states and is usually decided by cases within the state's own courts. Most third party liability cases involve mental health conditions and a doctor's duty to inform third parties, like family members and loved ones of the patient, about the diagnosis or treatment of a patient.

How States Determine Third Party Liability

Doctors who have entered into doctor-patient relationships owe certain duties to their patients, including the duty to provide a certain level of care and to keep the patient informed about the treatment process. Third party liability extends these duties to protect non-patient parties, like family members or employers of the patient, from harm the patient might cause. If a doctor fails to inform the patient about serious effects of treatment and the patient injures a third party the doctor may be held liable. Similarly, if a patient suffers a symptom that could endanger a specific third-party, like delusions involving a family member, the doctor may be held liable for injuries to the third party if the third party was not informed.

Currently, there are no national standards for a doctor's liability to third parties. Standards are set by individual states. Third party liability applies only to specific cases like when there is clear, foreseeable harm to a third party.

These cases are often very complex because third parties need to prove that the doctor was aware of a real risk to third parties that the doctor was aware of, and that the doctor failed to alert the third parties. The general, assumed rule is that doctors do not owe a duty to non-patient third parties.

When determining a physician's liability to third parties, states usually consider factors like:

  1. The nature of risk or problem faced if third parties are not alerted (possible drowsiness vs. thoughts of self-harm)
  2. The nature of relationships to the patient (alerting the neighbor may not be necessary but alerting the wife might be)
  3. The extent to which the third party may be affected
  4. Consequences of not alerting third parties
  5. The role and responsibilities of the physician to the patient's care and treatment

Generally, third parties are required to prove that the doctor owed not just a duty to society in general (this patient poses a general danger), but specifically to a particular third party (this patient poses a danger to one specific person). When a judge considers a third party liability case, they consider the larger picture about the consequences in order to limit and control the circumstances for which a doctor can be held liable.

Third parties can also sue doctors who are responsible for the wrongful death of a family member or for a serious injury incurred by a family member.

Examples of Third Party Liability

Usually, physicians do not want to be held liable for third-party injuries unless the patient poses a very clear risk to a specific person. However, there are exceptions even when the patient poses a clear risk to another.

One of the most well known third party liability cases, Coombes v. Florio, [1] was a case about a physician's liability to a third party who was injured by side-effects the patient unknowingly suffered from a medication. David Sacca lost consciousness while driving, veered off the road, and killed a 10-year-old boy. It was later determined that the combination of medications prescribed to Sacca was dangerous and that the doctor had not informed Sacca of the potential risks and symptoms of the medications. The court ruled that the doctor was responsible for the young boy's death because doctors have a duty to inform patients about medication risks, and failing to do so makes doctors liable for injuries resulting from a patient's reaction to medications.

In a 2003 Illinois case, a husband reported paranoid thoughts about his wife to his psychiatrist and concluded that he might kill her. Three days later his wife was strangled. The wife's family sued the doctor and argued that the doctor had a duty to inform the patient's wife about imminent danger. The Illinois Supreme Court concluded that the doctor had no responsibility to the wife because she was not a part of the doctor-patient relationship.

Similarly, in a case from 2000 in New York, a wife was denied compensation from her husband's doctor after a failed vasectomy resulted in her pregnancy.The court ruled in favor of the doctor and claimed the wife was not a patient and had no patient rights.

Though states allow doctors to share information with third parties who might need to know, like law enforcement or family members of the patient, states do not require doctors to do so.

Doctors may have liability to third parties when patients:

  • Are unaware of side effects of treatments
  • Might hurt themselves
  • Pose a specific threat to another person, like a direct verbal threat
  • Cannot look out for themselves

[1] 1 877 N.E.2d 567 (Mass. 2007).

Medical Malpractice Attorneys

If you or a loved one has suffered an injury from someone that was the direct result of negligent treatment by another person's doctor, you may be eligible for compensation. You need to speak to an experienced medical malpractice attorney to determine if a doctor owes third party liability.

To begin your case and learn more about your rights call the offices of Gilman & Bedigian today at (800) 529-6162.

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