In our blog posting for January 15, 2012 (“Did Utah Medical Malpractice Lead To Murder?”), we discussed the medical malpractice case filed on behalf of two very young children against the medical providers who prescribed medications to their father that allegedly caused a chemical change in his brain that led him to murder their mother. In response, the medical malpractice defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court judge granted, stating that no duty of care extended from the medical malpractice defendants to the two children because “no patient-health care provider relationship existed, at the time of the underlying events, between the plaintiffs…and the defendants.”
An appeal of the dismissal of their medical malpractice case was filed on behalf of the children to the Supreme Court of Utah (“Supreme Court”). In its decision filed on February 28, 2012, the Supreme Court described the issue before it as follows: “In this case we are asked to determine whether a physician owes nonpatients a duty to exercise reasonable care in the affirmative act of prescribing medications that pose a risk of injury to third parties.”
In deciding the issue, the Supreme Court’s opinion set forth an important distinction between negligent acts and negligent omissions:
[T]he distinction between acts and omissions is central to assessing whether a duty is owed [to] a plaintiff. In almost every instance, an act carries with it a potential duty and resulting legal accountability for that act. By contrast, an omission or failure to act can generally give rise to liability only in the presence of some external circumstance — a special relationship…Special relationships arise when one assumes responsibility for another’s safety or deprives another of his or her normal opportunities for self-protection…
After discussing the underlying facts of the case and the arguments of the parties to the appeal in its written opinion, the Supreme Court stated, “we affirm the existence of a duty on the part of healthcare providers to exercise reasonable care in prescribing medications that pose a risk of injury to third parties.” The Supreme Court noted that “Physicians — not third parties — are in a position to exercise ordinary care in prescribing medications so that patients do not pose an unreasonable risk of injury to others. As a medical expert, the prescribing physician can take into account the propensities of the drug, as well as the susceptibilities of his patient.”
The Supreme Court noted, however, that “A plaintiff must not only demonstrate that the provider‘s conduct fell outside the standard of professional care, but prove that the prescription was the proximate cause of a patient‘s harmful conduct.”
The Supreme Court’s decision concluded by stating, “Healthcare providers perform a societal function of undoubted social utility. But they are not entitled to an elevated status in tort law that would categorically immunize them from liability when their negligent prescriptions cause physical injury to nonpatients. We uphold a duty of healthcare providers to nonpatients in the affirmative act of prescribing medication, and reverse the district court‘s conclusion to the contrary.”
The case is captioned as Jeffs v. West, 2012 UT 11. Click here to read the Supreme Court’s opinion in full.
If you or a family member suffered ill-effects from a prescription medication, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries and losses. The prompt advice of a medical malpractice attorney may be essential to protecting your legal rights.
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