The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued its written opinion on October 1, 2014 in a case where it had to decide whether a Massachusetts hospital owes a legally cognizable duty of care to future patients of a doctor who was previously employed at the Massachusetts hospital and later allegedly abuse patients at a hospital in North Carolina.
The Supreme Judicial Court held that where the hospital does not have the type of special relationship either with its former employee or with any of his prospective patients, there is no such duty.
The Plaintiffs’ Alleged Facts
The defendant Massachusetts hospital had hired a pediatric physician in 1966. The pediatric physician left his employment with the hospital in 1985, relocating to North Carolina, where he obtained a North Carolina medical license and became employed as a pediatric physician in North Carolina. In 2009, the physician was alleged to have performed medically unnecessary genital examinations on a number of his patients in North Carolina.
In 2011, the plaintiffs (eleven former patients of the physician in North Carolina) sued the defendant Massachusetts hospital, alleging that it failed to properly train, supervise, or discipline the physician during his employment with the defendant hospital; that it knew or should have known that the physician was conducting inappropriate genital examinations of minors during his employment with the defendant hospital; and, that it failed to report the physician’s misconduct to various licensing authorities and to the North Carolina hospital that subsequently employed the physician, thereby leading to the physician’s abuse of the plaintiffs in North Carolina.
Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant Massachusetts hospital was advised in 1967 by the mother of a minor male patient that the physician had sexually abused her son during an examination. The defendant hospital was also aware of the many Massachusetts lawsuits and complaints filed by former Massachusetts patients of the physician after the physician had left the state, alleging similar allegations.
The Supreme Judicial Court noted that, as a general rule, all persons have a duty to exercise reasonable care in their own conduct to avoid harming others where the risk of harm is foreseeable to the actor, but that duty does not typically extend to controlling the conduct of a third party unless a “special relationship” exists between the party posing a risk to others and the party who can prevent that harm from occurring by taking action.
A special relationship giving rise to a duty of reasonable care with regard to risks posed by a third party that arise within the scope of the relationship involve four categories: (1) a parent with dependent children; (2) a custodian with those in custody; (3) an employer with employees when the employment facilitates the employee’s causing harm to third parties; and (4) a mental-health professional with patients.
The Supreme Judicial Court stated that the defendant hospital had a duty to supervise and monitor the physician’s conduct while he was employed as a physician there, and owed a duty of reasonable care to his minor patients to prevent foreseeable harm to them, but there is no duty on an employer to prevent the future behavior of a former employee, with respect to unknown customers and clients of unknown future employers.
The Supreme Judicial Court stated that the responsibilities of medical providers to vulnerable patients might extend beyond those of other service-providing employers, but in this case the geographic and temporal extent of the duty that the plaintiffs sought to impose on the defendant hospital reached too far and would potentially expose the employer to liability to an essentially limitless class of unknown parties for acts committed long after the employer had any ability to supervise, monitor, or discipline the former employee’s conduct.
The Supreme Judicial Court declined to recognize a special relationship between the defendant Massachusetts hospital and the plaintiffs.
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