In Massachusetts, How Far Does the Physician Duty to Unknown Third Parties Extend? — Medina v. Hochberg

With personal injury cases, sometimes an individual will be found liable for an injury to a party they do not even know. The courts are reluctant to extend liability to these unknown third parties, especially when they involve a patient-physician relationship. In 2007, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (“SJC”) allowed for physician liability to an unknown party in Coombes v. Florio. However, recently in Medina v. Hochberg, the court narrowed that ruling.

If you have been injured due to the negligence of another party, it is important to speak with a personal injury lawyer who knows how to hold negligent parties responsible so you can get the compensation you deserve.

The Massachusetts’ courts are not unfamiliar with finding liability to unknown third parties based upon special relationships. For example, an unknown third party was allowed to bring negligence case against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections when, due to a clerical error, the Department negligently and erroneously released a dangerous prisoner serving life in prison, and the prisoner viciously attacked an unknown third party while on parole. (Jean W. v. Commonwealth.) The court based this liability upon a special relationship because the Department of Correction’s had custody of and control over prisoner.

Massachusetts courts will not extend liability to unknown parties when the relationship involves a patient-physician relationship. The patient-physician relationship is a time honored tradition in the medical field because a physician has a specific obligation to serve the patient’s medical interest. Courts do not like to disturb this relationship by creating obligations to unknown third parties.

However in Coombes v. Florio, the SJC refused to dismiss a suit simply because the complaint argued that a physician’s duty to warn a patient extended to a third party. The complaint alleged that the physician had a duty to warn a patient of significant side effects of medical prescriptions, including drowsiness and altered consciousness. The patient took the medication and passed out while driving, killing a young child. In an extremely divided opinion, the court imposed a very narrow and limited duty under the argument that the physician already had a duty to warn the patient, and the public harm for failing to warn a patient about the known and quantifiable side effects of taking a medication when driving.

Recently in Medina v. Hochberg, the Supreme Judicial Court narrowed its decision in Coombes. In Medina, a Dr. Hochberg had been treating a patient, a Mr. Riskind for seizures. The patient had a seizure caused by a brain tumor. Dr. Hochberg began treating the patient and warned him not to drive for six months. Putting the patient on medication, a year later, Dr. Hochberg noted a significant improvement in the patient’s health and ability to perform daily functions like driving. Later, the patient suffered a “grand mal seizure” while driving causing an accident with and injuries to the plaintiff.

Under a theory of ordinary negligence, the court declined to extend the narrow finding in Coombes to Medina. Medina argued that a physicians has “an affirmative duty owed to nonpatients to warn patients of the risks of driving due to any underlying medical condition.”

Leaning towards a very narrow reading of Coombes, the court recognized that, in Coombes, there was a known and quantifiable side effect of the medication; the physician’s affirmative treatment created or increased the risk of injury; and there was already a duty to warn the patient of the side effects, and by failing to warn, the physician created a known risk to the public.

In Medina, there were preexisting health conditions, none of which stem from the physician’s affirmative treatment of the patient. There is no duty to warn of any number of preexisting conditions. The court refused to accept that a patient’s preexisting medical condition could be the basis for imposing a duty on the physician. A physician should be free to treat a patient without the concern of public injury by a particular medical condition of a patient.

In this case, the court has affirmed that it will not lightly expand the Coombes duty to a physician, yet the very narrow exception in Coombes survived. Time will tell how the court continues to treat Coombes.

If you have been the victim of a personal injury because of the negligent acts of another, you should consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to protect your rights and get the compensation you deserve.

Local attorney, John C. Manoog III, has extensive experience handling personal injury claims. For a free initial consultation, call the office at 888-262-6664 or reach us by email. There is always someone available to talk to you about your case.

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