Clinicians clearly owe a duty of care to their patients, but can that duty extend to people who aren’t patients? The New York Court of Appeals – the state’s highest court – has recently answered in the affirmative. According to the Court’s written decision, the Court of Appeals examined whether “3rd party liability can attach when a hospital administered drugs to a patient and then released her, in an impaired state, without any warning that the drugs affected or could have affected her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.”

The facts of the case were as follows: A patient, Lorraine Walsh, was treated in the emergency department of South Nassau Communities Hospital by a physician and a physician assistant (PA). As part of the treatment, Walsh was given an opioid painkiller (Dilaudid) and a benzodiazepine (Ativan) intravenously. Neither the physician nor the PA warned Walsh that the medication could impair her ability to operate a motor vehicle. Walsh was released from the hospital shortly thereafter and attempted to drive herself home.

Nineteen minutes after her discharge from the hospital, Walsh became disoriented while driving, crossed the double yellow lines, and drove into oncoming traffic. She hit another car and injured its driver.

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The driver who had been hit by Walsh sued the clinicians and the hospital where Walsh had been treated. Initially, the case was dismissed because the clinicians owed no duty of care to the injured person, only to their patient, and thus the lower court held that clinicians could not be held liable for injuries to a 3rd party. However, the New York Court of Appeals reversed that decision, stating that “defendants had a duty to plaintiffs to warn Walsh that the drugs administered to her impaired her ability to safely operate an automobile.” The Court further stated that to administer the drugs without a warning “was to create a peril affecting every motorist in Walsh’s vicinity. Defendants are the only ones who could have provided a proper warning of the effects of that medication.”

 “The ‘cost’ of the duty imposed upon physicians and hospitals should be a small one: where a medical provider administers to a patient medication that impairs or could impair the patient’s ability to safely operate an automobile, the medical provider need do no more than simply warn that patient of those dangers. It is already the function of a physician to advise the patient of the risks and possible side effects of prescribed medication… Our decision herein imposes no additional obligation on a physician who administers prescribed medication. Rather, we merely extend the scope of persons to whom the physician may be responsible for failing to fulfill that responsibility,” the Court declared.