When a person knows he or she has taken a medication that may impair his or her driving ability and nevertheless gets behind the wheel, that person may be liable for injuries arising from an accident caused by the impairment. If a health care provider gives a person a medication and allows that person to leave without warning him or her that the medication may cause impaired driving, the health care provider may be liable for injuries that person suffers in an accident caused by his or her impairment. But is a hospital liable to third parties who are injured in an accident caused by the impairment of a person the hospital failed to warn of the potential for impairment?
This issue was recently before the New York Court of Appeals in Davis v. South Nassau Communities Hospital. The hospital treated a woman. According to the court’s opinion, the woman had driven herself to the hospital and was treated in the emergency room. She was given an opioid narcotic painkiller and benzodiazepine, but she was not told that the medications could impair her ability to drive safely. She drove herself from the hospital and was involved in an accident when she crossed a double yellow line and hit a bus approximately 19 minutes after being discharged.
The injured man and his wife filed suit against the hospital and the entity that employed the physicians who treated the woman, alleging that the defendants administered the medication to the woman and failed to warn her of its effects, and the accident occurred while the woman was under the effects of the medication.
Both defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that they did not owe a duty to the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court granted the defendants’ motions, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The plaintiffs appealed.
The Court of Appeals noted that it had previously been reluctant to expand a doctor’s duties beyond the patient. The appeals court found that the defendants were “in the best position to protect against the risk of harm” because of their relationship with the at-fault driver. It also found that balancing a number of factors, including the expectations of the parties and society, the potential increase in claims, and public policies, favored establishing a duty on the part of the defendants to the plaintiffs under these facts.
The court noted that giving the woman the medication without providing a warning about the effects of the drug created a hazard to every driver who came near the woman. Only the defendants could have given the warning. The court found that the defendants had a duty to the plaintiffs to warn that the medication they gave her impaired her ability to drive safely.
The court pointed out that this duty would have only a small “cost.” The health care provider already has the function of advising the patient of possible risks and side effects of the medication the provider prescribes. Thus, the duty does not impose an additional obligation on the prescribing physician, but instead it just extends the scope of person to whom the physician may be liable for failing to provide the warning.The court also noted that it was only imposing a duty to warn the patient of the dangers, not a duty to prevent the patient from leaving the hospital.
The appeals court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ motion to amend the complaint to add a negligence claim, finding that the plaintiff’s claims sounded in medical malpractice, and a negligence claim lacked merit.
The appeals court noted that courts should remain cautious in recognizing new duties of care. In fact, one justice dissented, stating that the injured man was “an unidentified and unknown stranger to defendants’ physician-patient relationship….”
If you have been injured by an impaired driver, you need a skilled New York car accident attorney who can help you identify all of the potential defendants.
The Law Offices of Nicholas Rose, PLLC offers free consultations. Call 1-877-313-7673.
Davis v. South Nassau Communities Hospital, December 2, 2015 New York Court of Appeals
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Vaughan v. St. Vincent Hospital – Failure to Convey Diagnosis Leads to Litigation, October 10, 2014, New York City Injury Lawyer Blog