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New York’s Highest Court Expands Legal Duty

The Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit that involves two kinds of negligence: medical malpractice and careless driving.
Facts
Davis v. South Nassau Community Hospitals involved a woman – Lorraine Walsh – who received an intravenous opioid narcotic painkiller, along with some other drugs. Before she departed, no one warned her that these painkillers would most probably impair her ability to operate a motor vehicle. In fact, trial testimony indicated that she received the equivalent of up to eight times a dose of morphine.
Her medical records reflected that Ms. Walsh drove herself to the emergency room, so it would have been logical for the hospital to assume that she would drive herself home. Less than 20 minutes after she left, Ms. Walsh crossed the double yellow line and smacked into a bus.
A lower court dismissed the complaint, on the basis that the hospital owed no duty to warn if a third party suffered damages.
Decision
A four-judge majority held that “the medical provider has a duty to third parties to warn the patient of that danger.” Although the Court of Appeals had held otherwise in prior cases, Justice Eugene Fahey observed that “Changing social conditions lead constantly to the recognition of new duties,” and this dispute was one such occasion. The decision announced a narrow duty that includes a simple warning about the known side-effects and does not extend to preventing the patient from leaving the hospital.
Two dissenting judges countered that the hospital only had a duty to the patient and that it could not be held responsible for the fate of third parties.
Impact
This decision is important for victims on two levels.
First, it upholds the principle that doctors have a very high duty of care when it comes to their patients. That makes sense, because patients are almost 100 percent reliant on their doctors when it comes to medical matters, and unless they get second opinions, they have no reasonable way to second-guess what their doctors say.
This decision also upholds a broad interpretation of dram shop liability, respondeat superior, and other third party liability theories. And, the more sources of compensation that are available, the more damages injured victims may receive.
For a free consultation with attorneys who know the law, contact us. We have six office locations statewide.

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