Massachusetts SJC: Neurologist Not Liable for Patient’s Harm to Third Party; Failure to Warn Patient About Driving Does Not Create Liability

A man who was injured by a driver who suffered a seizure due to his brain tumor could not sue the driver’s neurologist for allegedly failing to warn him not to drive, or for otherwise failing to control his driving.

On December 21, 2001, the plaintiff suffered serious personal injury when he was struck by a car operated by the defendant driver. The driver had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in September 2000 after he had suffered a grand mal seizure. The tumor was malignant and inoperable.

The driver waited six months before he began driving again, as required by Massachusetts law. His treating neurologist, Frederick Hochberg, M.D. of Massachusetts General Hospital, allegedly did not attempt to prevent his patient from driving again and did not warn him not to drive. 

After he was hurt, the plaintiff sued the driver’s estate (the driver had passed away). He also brought a medical negligence claim against Dr. Hochberg. The plaintiff claimed that Dr. Hochberg owed a general duty to the public who might be injured due to the nature of the underlying medical condition that he was treating. The plaintiff argued that the duty rose from the special relationship between a physician and a patient. The plaintiff argued that general negligence principles created a duty in Dr. Hochberg to warn his patient of the dangers of driving while suffering from the brain tumor. The Supreme Judicial Court rejected both arguments.

The court found that this doctor-patient relationship was not a “special relationship” which would give rise to a duty to prevent harm to a third person. Absent such a special relationship, the court said, “there is no duty to control another person’s conduct to prevent that person from causing harm to a third party.”

In 2007, the court had found, in Coombes v. Florio, 450 Mass 182 (2007), that a physician may have a duty to warn his or her patient about the side effects of medication being prescribed. The court ruled that this duty extended to third parties who might be injured if the warning had not been given. But the court refused to extend that ruling to include medical conditions under treatment.

The Coombes case was seen by the court as a very narrow exception to the general rule that a physician owes no duty to third parties who might be injured by a patient. The court stated that the duty sought by the plaintiff would “impose on physicians an affirmative duty … to nonpatients to warn patient of the risks of driving due to any underlying medical condition. We conclude this is an unwarranted and ill-advised expansion of liability for several reasons.”

The main concern of the court was that the physician did not do anything to increase the likelihood of harm by the patient, compared to the physician who might be liable for prescribing medication and thus creating additional risk. The court also believed that further imposition of duty would intrude on the doctor-patient relationship and might increase collateral costs. 

This case represents the second time the court has stated that it will not be expanding the duty recognized in the Coombes case.  At least that narrow exception survived.

The case is Medina v. Hochberg, SJC-11178 (May 13, 2013).

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