Massachusetts SJC: Hospital Owes No Duty of Care to Third Parties

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a hospital does not owe a third party a duty of care for injuries arising as a result of hospital treatment of a patient. Accordingly, a police officer who suffered personal injuries in a car accident responding to a pedestrian accident scene, cannot recover against the hospital after its patient was killed in the pedestrian accident.

The case was brought by Leavitt, a police officer for the town of Whitman, MA. He received an emergency call to respond to the scene of an accident where a pedestrian had been struck and killed by a car. On his way to the accident, Leavitt’s cruiser was struck, and he was seriously and permanently injured.

It was determined that the pedestrian had been treated earlier that day at the Brockton Hospital, where he had undergone a colonoscopy. As part of the procedure, he had received narcotic medication. He was allowed to leave the hospital without an escort, which was against hospital policy and, plaintiff alleged, good and accepted medical practice.

The court found that the hospital owed no duty of the plaintiff. Specifically, the court ruled that the theories of general negligence, of a special relationship, and of a voluntary assumption of a duty of care were all without merit. The duty of care in a special relationship is extremely limited in Massachusetts, and there is, the court concluded, simply no duty to control a patient who might be impaired by medication.

Going further, the court also concluded that the incident was outside the foreseeable risk of harm associated with the colonoscopy procedure. The court also rejected the application of the rescue doctrine, deciding that the risk would not reasonably be anticipated to arise from the rescue.

Importantly, the court did not disturb its earlier ruling in the case of Coombes v. Florio, 450 Mass. 543 (2006). In that case, the court held that a doctor may be liable for injuries caused to a third person if it is determined that the physician negligently failed to warn the patient of the effects of treatment. The court distinguished Coombes because no failure to warn was alleged in the case against the Brockton Hospital.

The name of the case is Leavitt v. Brockton Hospital, Inc., SJC-10296 (2009). 

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