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Decision of the Day: Mass. Expands MD Liability

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has decided that an auto accident victim can sue the driver's doctor for negligently prescribing him medication. TortsProf Blog calls it "an opinion with potentially broad implications," and Overlawyered describes it as a "gigantic expansion of liability."

"Gigantic" may be an overstatement, given that the high courts of at least two other states, Hawaii and Maine, have imposed liability on doctors in similar circumstances. Still, the potentially controversial nature of the decision, Coombes v. Florio, can be seen in the breakdown of the six justices who decided it: Three concurred, one concurred in part and dissented in part, and two dissented, including Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall.

There is no majority opinion, but Justice Roderick L. Ireland, in his concurring opinion joined by two other justices, writes, "I conclude that a physician owes a duty of reasonable care to everyone foreseeably put at risk by his failure to warn of the side effects of his treatment of a patient." Dissenting Justice Robert J. Cordy said the case "might fundamentally alter the relationship between doctor and patient, and increase significantly the costs of health care."

At Overlawyered, Ted Frank predicts that the obvious outcome of this case is that "doctors will simply overwarn, and tell all of their patients not to drive." Dr. Dale Magee, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, told The Boston Globe, "This is one more straw on the backs of practicing physicians who feel the liability challenges out there are being broadened." But a lawyer for the plaintiff, Peter L. Eleey of Quincy, Mass., defended the ruling: "When a doctor treats a patient and prescribes medication and other services, the doctor has a duty to warn that patient of the side effects of those treatments, and if he fails to warn the patient of those side effects and they result in an accident that injures or kills a third party ... he can be responsible to that third party."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on December 11, 2007 at 04:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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