Law & Medicine

Law & Medicine: To whom do doctors owe a duty?



Question: A doctor may owe a duty of care in the setting of:

A. A cyber relationship.

B. A special relationship.

C. Both A and B.

D. Neither A nor B.

Answer: C. Ascertaining whether a defendant owes a duty to a claimant is the first inquiry in the tort of negligence. To say there is no duty owed is to deny liability altogether, however obvious the breach or horrendous the foreseeable injuries.

Thus, duty is used as a filter mechanism to reduce frivolous suits or otherwise control the tide of litigation, to prevent “liability in an indeterminate amount for an indeterminate time to an indeterminate class.”

Duty in the context of medical negligence is not usually in dispute, as it is plainly owed by a doctor to his or her patient. It arises out of the doctor-patient relationship. Whether a relationship has been formed in the first place is a threshold inquiry. Where a doctor accepts a patient who is seeking his or her services, the relationship is readily evident. Duty is also established when the doctor begins the evaluation process in a typical encounter.

However, a phone inquiry by a potential patient, without more, may be insufficient to create this relationship, although this may depend on the nature of the phone conversation and the doctor’s response.

Likewise, a “curbside” consultation sought by a colleague does not normally translate into a duty for the doctor offering the opinion. Presumably casual advice given freely and understood as such at social gatherings does not add up to a doctor-patient relationship, and courts will look to reasonableness as the touchstone in deciding whether such a relationship was ever formed.

Still, there are some medical situations where a legitimate question of duty can be raised. With the growth of electronic medical records and communication, medical encounters in cyberspace will emerge as an increasing source of litigation.

Internet liability can be far reaching. In addition to risks governing negligence, informed consent, and privacy/confidentiality, there are additional issues of product liability, cross-border jurisdictional conflicts, and others.

The threshold question when assessing cyberspace liability arising, for example, from the use of doctor-operated medical websites concerns duty, because its existence or denial will determine whether the case can go forward in the first place. Although not the typical office or hospital patient, a plaintiff may argue successfully that a doctor-patient relationship had nonetheless been formed in cyberspace.

It is possible that such a relationship will be found in some circumstances, relevant factors being knowledge of names of subscribers, frequency of interactions, specificity of queries, and so on. In particular, a subscription fee is likely to be construed as evidence of soliciting and accepting a more committed interaction, so it places the operator of the website at greater legal risk. A specific disclaimer is a standard precaution but may not be enough to definitively protect against a lawsuit.

Courts have ruled in favor of plaintiffs despite the absence of face-to-face interaction with a physician. In one case, a doctor speaking to a patient from the emergency department was deemed to have formed a doctor-patient relationship (O’Neill v. Montefiore Hospital, 11 A.D.2d 132 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. 1960). In another, an on-call neurologist’s telephone advice to the treating doctor likewise raised the issue of legal duty (Lection v. Dyll, 65 S.W.3d 696 (Tex. App. Dallas 2001).

The state of Hawaii now permits telehealth services to be reimbursable, notwithstanding the absence of face-to-face contact (HI Rev Stat § 431:10A-116.3[a]). With this law, an online encounter will likely translate into a professional relationship – with corresponding legal duty of due care.

In the case of a Good Samaritan physician – i.e., one who offers gratuitous aid to a stranger in need of medical assistance – courts are unlikely to find a professional relationship, because there is no common law duty to help a stranger.

However, once treatment has begun, there is a duty not to make matters worse. So, all 50 states have enacted Good Samaritan statutes, which protect against liability arising out of negligent rescue. Note that statutory protection is generally excluded for Good Samaritan acts performed within a hospital setting, under the theory that doctors have an ongoing relationship with the hospital and are already obligated to provide emergency care within its walls.

Another category of legal duty concerns nonpatient third parties. The complaint may relate to a failure to warn family members of a patient’s contagious disease, or the transmissible condition may have been missed and an innocent third party was injured as a result.


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