Am I Liable for the Actions of an Impaired Patient?

Carolyn Buppert, MSN, JD


October 16, 2013

In This Article

What Do the Courts Say?

It can be instructive to see how courts have looked at clinician responsibility in specific cases. Let's take a look at 2 cases that addressed the issue of whether clinicians have a duty to protect third parties from impaired patients.

A Massachusetts court found that a physician could be liable to a 10-year-old boy's family, when a patient, impaired by treatments, drove and hit the boy.[1] In that case, a physician had prescribed oxycodone, metolazone, prednisone, tamsulosin, potassium, paroxetine, oxazepam, and furosemide to a man in his 70s who had advanced metastatic lung cancer. The man had undergone chemotherapy in recent years, and the physician had advised him not to drive while undergoing chemotherapy. A few months before the accident, the physician stopped chemotherapy and told the patient he could drive again.

One day the man lost consciousness while driving and hit and killed the child. The boy's mother sued the physician, claiming negligence for failing to warn the patient not to drive while on medications known to cause drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, altered consciousness, and sedation. A trial court awarded summary judgment to the physician, saying that the doctor had no duty to the boy. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed the trial court, saying that the boy's case against the physician could go forward.

The Supreme Court held that the physician owed a duty to all those foreseeably put at risk by his failure to warn the patient of the danger of driving while taking the medications. This case was brought on the legal theory of common negligence, not medical malpractice. To prove negligence, the injured party must prove 3 elements: that the other person failed to use due care (the care that an ordinary, reasonable and prudent person would have exercised under similar circumstances); that as a result of the defendant's negligence, the plaintiff was injured; and that the injured party sustained damages. In medical malpractice there is an additional element: duty of care to the patient.

Not all members of the court agreed with the opinion. In a dissent, a justice asked, "Is the doctor to tell a patient whenever a medication is prescribed which might in some circumstance cause drowsiness or fainting, 'Do not drive. Do not hold your grandchild. Do not carry grocery bags to your car. In fact, do not do anything that involves interacting with another person?'"


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