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Court rules hospital can be liable to 3rd party in car crash

A court ruling from another state may serve as a warning to hospitals and medical practices in Ohio that they may be held responsible for their patients’ car crashes someday. The case has no bearing on the law here, of course, but if a similar case ever comes before the Ohio Supreme Court, it could have some influence on the justices’ legal reasoning.

The New York Court of Appeals, that state’s highest court, has ruled that a hospital there can be held liable as a third party to a car crash involving a patient. The patient had gone to the hospital for treatment. She was administered an opioid painkiller and benzodiazepine intravenously. According to Clinical Advisor, neither the doctor nor the physician’s assistant who treated the woman warned her that these drugs could impair her ability to drive.

The woman drove off from the hospital. About 20 minutes later, she was still on the road and became disoriented, crossing the median line and crashing into another car, injuring its driver.

That driver later sued the hospital and the clinicians who treated the woman. The lawsuit was dismissed at the trial level, but when the case reached the Court of Appeals, the justices reversed that decision. They reasoned that the defendants had a duty to the plaintiff to warn the patient that she could not drive safely while under the drugs’ effects. That duty extended to “every motorist in [the patient’s] vicinity,” and the defendants were the only ones who could provide that warning.

The ruling called the cost of this duty “a small one.” Being sued for medical malpractice by a third-party non-patient could indeed be costly to a hospital, compared with providing patients with a brief, clear warning of a medication’s side effects. Still, expanding malpractice liability beyond the patient and his or her family could have troubling, unintended consequences.

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