New York’s Court of Appeals recently decided a case extending a doctor’s duty beyond that of his or her patient.  Doctors, under certain circumstances, may now be responsible for injuries caused by their patients to third parties.

In Davis v. South Nassau Communities Hospital, 2015 NY Slip Op. 09229, the plaintiff commenced an action for injuries caused by Lorraine Walsh.  Walsh’s vehicle crossed the center line of the roadway, striking the bus the plaintiff was driving.  The defendants in the case included the hospital and medical professionals from Island Medical Physicians, P.C.

Walsh had been administered Dilaudid (an opioid narcotic painkiller) and Ativan (a benzodiazepine drug).  She was discharged without being warned about the effects these drugs, individually and combined, would have on her ability to operate an automobile.  She was given the drugs at 11:00 a.m. and was discharged 90 minutes later.

The side effects of Ativan include sedation, dizziness, weakness, unsteadiness and disorientation.  Dilaudid is between two and eight times more powerful than morphine and contains warnings that include “may impair mental and/or physical ability needed to perform activities such as driving.”  Walsh was not advised of these warnings.

The plaintiff sought damages for injuries sustained as a result of the defendants’ medical malpractice.  The medical defendants countered by asserting that they did not owe plaintiff a duty of care inasmuch as the plaintiff was a third party to the treatment rendered to Walsh.

The court determined that a “critical consideration in determining whether a duty exists is whether the defendant’s relationship with either the tortfeasor or the plaintiff places defendant in the best position to protect against the risk of harm.”  The Court of Appeals found that under the circumstances, the defendants owed the plaintiff a duty to have warned Walsh that the medication they administered impaired her ability to safely operate an automobile.  In this instance “the defendants’ relationship with the tortfeasor placed them in the best position to protect against the risk of harm.”

It is important to note that medical professionals need not do more under this case than warn the patient of the dangers.  The case does not examine the need to assess if the patient can understand the warning.  That being said, a creative attorney will most assuredly try to extend this new duty even further.  Therefore, an assessment of a patient’s ability to comprehend the warning may be a reasonable consequence of this decision.

As Judge Stein pointed out in her dissent, this decision is directly opposite to the long-standing precedent that a physician’s duty of care does not extend beyond the patient to the community at large.

From this point forward, doctors and healthcare facilities will be well advised to warn patients about the effects of drugs on the ability to drive and perhaps to assess the patient’s ability to comprehend the warning.  As we know, plaintiffs’ attorneys will always be creative in looking for and finding the deep pocket.