Law & Medicine

Medicolegal aspects of sleep apnea



Question: A patient who is a commercial truck driver has a long history of snoring and daytime sleepiness. His physical exam was remarkable for obesity, prominent extremities, a large tongue, and a prominent jaw. The treating doctor did not pursue additional work-up or treatment.

One day, the patient fell asleep while driving his truck and hit an oncoming vehicle, resulting in injuries to both patient and the other driver.

In this hypothetical scenario, which of the following statements is best?

A. The doctor may be found negligent for missing the diagnosis of acromegaly and accompanying sleep apnea, and for failing to treat and warn about driving risks.

B. The doctor may be liable to both his patient and the other injured driver.

C. The patient may be terminated from his job as a commercial truck driver, because he poses a danger to himself and the public.

D. Both A and B are correct.

E. All are correct.

Answer: D. Sleep apnea, an underdiagnosed and undertreated disabling condition, places the patient at substantial risk for injuries, chronic hypoxemia, and respiratory arrest. Excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue may prove hazardous, particularly in those whose undivided attention is a requirement of their jobs, such as with truck drivers.

Diagnosis is established with a formal sleep study (polysomnography), and treatment with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device is usually effective. In severe or recalcitrant cases, surgical intervention (that is, uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) may be necessary.

In a recent study, Dr. Peter F. Svider of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Newark, and his colleagues analyzed 54 litigated sleep apnea cases, of which 33 (61%) were resolved in favor of the defendants (Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2013 Dec;149[6]:947-53). Most of the cases (47) stemmed from patients who underwent surgery with perioperative complications, including death. Inadequate informed consent and monitoring, as well as inappropriate medications, were other findings.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a well-recognized complication of acromegaly with its bony and soft-tissue hypertrophy. The hypothetical situation described above is substantially modified from an actual case in which a 39-year-old man with acromegaly and sleep apnea died from cardiorespiratory arrest (Cornett v. W.O. Moss Regional Hospital, 614 So.2d 189 [La. 1993]). He had presented over the course of several years with repeated complaints of daytime sleepiness and sleeping while driving. Falling asleep in the examination room and abnormal blood gases were giveaway signs. Unfortunately, sleep apnea was left untreated.

Other litigated cases have included anoxic encephalopathy from a lost airway and inappropriate fentanyl dosing during and following aggressive surgery for mild/moderate obstructive sleep apnea, as well as cardiac arrest in a retired sailor during a routine endoscopic procedure. In the latter instance, the plaintiff alleged that there was a failure to take proper precautions in protecting the airway, given that the patient had a known case of obstructive sleep apnea.

What about other liabilities for injuries that are proximately caused by a failure to diagnose and treat?

A doctor is usually liable for negligent care only to his or her own patient, because the duty of care grows out of the doctor-patient relationship and is normally owed to the patient and no one else. However, in very limited circumstances, the duty may extend to other individuals who are family members or even total strangers.

Sleep apnea, by virtue of its sleep disturbances and resulting daytime sleepiness, poses a foreseeable risk of harm. Nonpatient third parties have successfully sued doctors for driving injuries arising out of the failure to diagnose, treat, or warn in a variety of medical conditions.

For example, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that a physician must warn a patient with newly diagnosed seizure disorder about the risks of driving (Freese v. Lemmon, 210 N.W.2d 576 [Iowa 1973]). In that case, a patient with a history of a single seizure injured a woman when he suffered a second seizure while driving.

By analogy, it seems reasonable to assume that the facts given in our hypothetical scenario may give rise to an action against the doctor not only by the patient, but by the injured nonpatient third party as well.

In many jurisdictions, sleep apnea has been accepted as a disability for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A disability is defined as a condition evincing substantial interference with a major life activity. Under the ADA, employers are required to make “reasonable accommodation” for disabled employees and cannot simply dismiss them by sole virtue of that disability.

However, qualification for the job must still be shown. One court ruled that a plaintiff with sleep apnea had failed to show that he was a qualified employee even if given his proposed “two-nap-a-day” accommodation (Jackson v. Boise Cascade Corp., 941 F. Supp. 1122 [Ala. 1996]).


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