Doctors can be held liable in circumstances when a patient causes injury to other individuals. Not all states allow for this kind of liability. Pennsylvania, however, does. In Pennsylvania, medical professionals like doctors and psychiatrists can be held liable for negligence in treatment of a patient which leads to injury to others.
The seminal case is DiMarco v. Lynch Homes, a 1990 case in which the Pennsylvania Supreme court upheld liability of a doctor who failed to properly advise a patient about a contagious disease which was then spread to another person. The court in that case stated, “The duty of the physician in such circumstances extended to the infected patient’s sexual partner who was readily identifiable and considered to be within the ‘foreseeable orbit of risk of harm‘.”
Suggested reading: Doctor Liability for Negligence in Prescribing Medicine
Also in 1990, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed liability of an ophthalmologist for injury caused by a patient. In Witthoeft v. Kiskaddon, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to find an ophthalmologist liable for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle-bicycle accident that was caused by the ophthalmologist’s patient. The court refused to find the doctor liable for failing to report the patient’s visual defects to the Department of Transportation. The court distinguished its earlier DiMarco case on the basis that the doctor in DiMarco gave misinformation to the patient who, as a result, spread Hepatitis B to her boyfriend.
Since then, a handful of cases have dealt with the issue of doctor liability to third parties:
Hospodar v. Schick (2005 PA Superior Court) – doctor not liable where doctor knew of, but failed to treat patient’s seizure disorder and blackouts.
Crosby v. Sultz (1991 PA Superior Court) – doctor not liable where patient with diabetes not informed of potential for driving to be impaired; doctor does not have burden to determine the possibility that otherwise controlled diabetes can flare up and impair driving.
Heil v. Brown (1995 PA Superior Court) – mental health professional not liable when patient has psychotic episode and causes accident.
The key in these kinds of negligence cases involving doctors is foreseeability. It must be reasonably foreseeable that another party would be injured, and the injured party must be within the “foreseeable orbit of risk of harm”. In addition, there must be sufficient facts to establish that the doctor’s actions or inactions actually led to the injury or accident.
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