The case went to trial. At trial, the plaintiff’s attorney argued that Dr. P had a duty to prescribe blood pressure lowering medication to his patient, and that he had ample reason to do so. The plaintiff’s attorney introduced experts who testified about the risk of stroke and high blood pressure, especially when combined with the patient’s diabetes and high cholesterol. The attorney argued that had Dr. P prescribed blood pressure lowering medication, as he should have, the patient might not have had a stroke.

The defense attorney, via his witnesses, testified that the patient had a history of smoking, was overweight, and had non-modifiable risk factors (age, sex, and race) in addition to diabetes and cholesterol. Dr. P produced records showing that the patient had missed half of his appointments, and detailed the conversations he’d had with the patient about the importance of taking his medications and how the patient confessed that he was not taking them as prescribed.

After deliberation, the jury found that Dr. P was 61% negligent, and that the patient was 39% negligent. The monetary judgment of $1.4 million against Dr. P was reduced by 39%.

Legal Background

Comparative negligence is a defense used to mitigate the amount that a defendant may have to pay in damages. The defense is based on an assessment of the plaintiff’s fault, and then the award of damages is reduced in direct proportion to the plaintiff’s percentage of fault. Comparative negligence penalizes the plaintiff for being a contributing factor to his or her own injury.

In this case, Mr. M was found to be 39% at fault for his own injuries due to his negligence in not taking his medications or showing up for his appointments. His total award, therefore, was reduced by 39%.

Protecting Yourself

While a patient always has the option of deciding whether or not to take prescribed medication, a clinician cannot make that decision for the patient. Dr. P allowed his frustration at the patient’s noncompliance to cloud his judgment. Where he would have prescribed medication to another patient, he didn’t in Mr. M’s case because he assumed that the patient would not take the medication even if it were prescribed.

Prescribing the medication would have protected Dr. P legally, and might have protected the patient physically (had he taken it). Ultimately, it should have been the patient’s decision whether or not to take the medication, but by not prescribing it at all Dr. P removed the patient’s choice.