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Massachusetts law follows the premise that a physician owes a duty of care to their patients . There has been a recent trend in court decisions that holds physicians responsible to third persons when injured by their patients.

  In the case of Grantham v. O'Grady ( Mass. Essex County No. 92-1629) the defendant-physician abruptly took his patient off a prescribed medication when it was known that a sudden ending to this medication could cause seizures. The patient was driving her car when she experienced a seizure and the plaintiff-passengers were injured when the car veered from the road and struck a tree. The court refused to entertain the defendant-physician's claim that the plaintiff cannot bring a cause of action in negligence against the physician when there is no relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant-physician. The court stated that "the preferable view is that the plaintiff can maintain an action for negligence against the physician based upon the special relationship between the defendant-physician and the person causing the injury (the patient) and the foreseeability of the harm resulting to the plaintiff...The salient inquiry is whether it is reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiff would be harmed by the conduct of the physician."

 Many other courts have reached the same conclusion when confronted with the issue of duty to warn. In Kaiser v. Suburban Trans. Sys., 398 P2d 14 (Wash.1965) a defendant physician was held liable for failing to warn his patient bus driver about the side effects of a drug he prescribed. The court held that the injuries sustained by the plaintiff when the bus driver lost consciousness was reasonably foreseeable by the physician. In Goodin v. Tips, 651 S.W. 2d 364 (Tex. App., 1983) the court held a defendant physician liable for failing to warn his patient not to drive while taking prescribed medication. The court held that a physician can owe a duty to use reasonable care to protect the driving public.

 The measuring stick in the prescribed medication cases is as follows: (1) Where the physician's negligence in diagnosis or treatment of his patient contributes to the injuries of the plaintiff; and (2) where the harm to the plaintiff was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the physician's failure to warn his patient not to drive, the burden is on the physicians to warn their patients about any possible side affects when prescribing medication in order to safe guard the general public.

   While a majority of the cases deal with a patient operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of prescribed medication,  in Bradshaw v. Daniel,854 S.W.2d 865 (Tenn. Sup. Ct., April 5, 1993) the court upheld the contention of the son of a Memphis couple who died of tick-borne Rocky Mountain spotted fever.(R.M.S.F.) The father (patient of the defendant Physician) contracted R.M.S.F. went to the hospital were he was treated and died one day later. A week after the mother (not the defendant physician's patient) contracted R.M.S.F. went to a different hospital and died three days later. The court stated the "existence of the physician-patient relationship between the husband and the physician was sufficient to impose upon the physician an affirmative duty to warn identifiable third persons in the patient's immediate family against foreseeable risks emanating from a patient's illness"

 In conclusion it is important for physicians to remember to inform their patients of any adverse side effects as to the medications they prescribe and as the Bradshaw case illustrated, physicians have a duty to warn identifiable third persons in the patient's immediate family against foreseeable risks stemming from their patient's illness.


Physicians Duties to Third Parties Injured by Patient

by Attorney Frank E. Reardon

January 1994

REARDON LAW OFFICE