Professional Liability to Strangers

Professionals owe their clients a duty to exercise the care, diligence, and skill expected of others in their profession in similar circumstances.  Generally, the professional-client relationship defines the scope of this duty of care.  However, in certain circumstances, the professional’s duty may extend to third parties, even complete strangers to the professional relationship. This is where things get tricky.

The New York Court of Appeals recently decided one such case in Davis v. S. Nassau Communities Hospital.  In that case, a patient was treated by doctors at a hospital who administered an opioid narcotic painkiller and other drugs to the patient.  Common side effects of these medications include sedation, weakness, and disorientation.  Despite these potential side effects, the doctors did not inform the patient that the medication could impair her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

Shortly after taking the medication, the patient attempted to drive home from the hospital when she was involved in a head on collision with a car driven by plaintiff.  The plaintiff claimed that the patient was disoriented at the time of the accident and that the crash was caused by the medication the patient had taken at the hospital earlier that day.  The plaintiff filed suit against the doctors and the hospital, alleging that they failed to warn the patient of the danger of operating a motor vehicle after taking the medication.

The defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that they did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, noting that there was no physician-patient relationship between plaintiff and defendants.

On appeal, however, the Court determined that the Defendants did owe the patient a duty to warn of the effects of the medication that was administered to her.  The Court continued that the duty of care to the patient also extended to other individuals who could foreseeably be harmed by the failure to warn.  The Court reasoned that the defendants’ failure to provide a warning to the patient placed other motorists at risk and that the defendants therefore were in the best position to protect against this harm.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that the plaintiff could assert a claim against the defendant doctors and hospital—even though he was a third-party that had no prior relationship with them—because the doctors could have potentially prevented the accident had they provided the required warnings to the patient.

Professionals must remain cognizant of the fact that the decisions and acts they make on behalf of their clients can also impact third-parties.  Depending on the particular facts of the case, if the harm to these parties is reasonably foreseeable, the professional may be held accountable, even though no professional-client relationship was ever established.