State Supreme Court Case Explores Legal Duty Owed By Doctor to Family of Patients

The public often perceives the law as a static set of rules that applies to all situations without changing. However, those working the area understand that the law is actually a complex and changing set of rules, regulations, procedures, and general principles. As new cases arise and different arguments are made, those rules and principles are constantly being molded. Our Illinois medical malpractice attorneys appreciate that this is how the system has been able to provide justice in incredibly different times. Life was far different at the nation’s founding than it is now. However, the same basic legal system is intact, because it was able to slowly adapt to changes in society and culture.

The appellate courts at both the state and federal levels play the most important role in crafting these changes. When novel legal issues are raised, they usually end up being appealed to these higher courts which then set down specific rulings to guide lower courts when faced with that issue in future cases.

For example, the Salt Lake Tribune recently discussed a new issue related to medical malpractice and hospital care faced by the state’s Supreme Court. The issue in the case was the duty owed by medical professionals to the family of the patient’s that they treat. The lawsuit which spurred the decision was filed by the children of a woman who was shot to death by her husband. The husband was heavily medicated at the time of the attack. The suit alleges that the medical providers contributed to the woman’s death through their actions related to the care of the murderer. The heart of the suit suggests that the care providers knowingly prescribed antidepressants and other drugs which were known to carry a risk of psychiatric complications.

A lower court had dismissed the claim, essentially explaining that the children could not file a medical malpractice lawsuit because they themselves were not the patients (nor was their mother). However, the state’s Supreme Court recently reversed that decision and is allowing the case to proceed. In so doing, the court essentially steered the discussion away from specific medical malpractice and toward the potential liability under basic negligence principles. The Justice which wrote the opinion for the unanimous court noted, “Healthcare providers…are not entitled to an elevated status in tort law that would categorically immunize them from liability when their negligent prescriptions cause physical injury to nonpatients.” He went on to note that the law “upholds a duty of healthcare providers to nonpatients in the affirmative act of prescribing medication.”

Our Chicago medical malpractice attorneys understand the sound logic behind this ruling. It is important to remember that this does not mean that doctors are always liable for harm that their patients cause to others-in this case or future cases. This ruling simply allows this particular case to go forward. All similar cases will now at least be allowed to advance to the next stage of the process where more information is collected about what the medical care providers knew about the patient’s risk of harming others, what warnings were given about the effect of the medication, and similar issues.

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