Legal Background

Typically, in a medical malpractice case, 4 elements must be met: a duty owed, a breach of that duty, harm as a result, and damages. In the case of a patient, the “duty owed” element is automatically met, a health care practitioner always owes a duty of care to his or her patient. However, in this case the court was asked to rule about whether someone who was not a patient but who suffered injury as a result of the physician’s malpractice could be considered a ‘patient’ under the state’s Medical Malpractice Act. To determine this, the court first looked at how the Act defines ‘patient’ as “an individual who receives or should have received health care from a health care provider, under a contract, express or implied, and includes a person having a claim of any kind, whether derivative or otherwise, as a result of alleged malpractice on the part of the health care provider.”

Based on the statute’s wording, the court held that a statutory ‘patient’ (in other words an eligible claimant under the Act) falls into 1 of 2 categories. The first category is the traditional patient, someone who has a clinician-patient relationship with a health care provider. The second category, held the court, is a third party with a claim against a health care provider under state law (as mentioned in the second part of the description in the Act, “a person having a claim of any kind … as a result of alleged malpractice on the part of a health care provider.”)

“This latter category refers to a third party whose claim results from a provider’s malpractice to someone in the first category, namely a traditional patient,” wrote the court in its decision. Here, Mr C is not a traditional patient because he has no patient-provider relationship with the physician. But he is nevertheless a statutory ‘patient’ because he has a wrongful-death claim resulting from the physician’s alleged malpractice to Mrs W, who was the physician’s traditional patient. Based on conclusion, the court allowed Mr C to proceed with his case.

Protecting Yourself

There have been a handful of cases which have now held, for one reason or another, that a third party can pursue a claim against a health care practitioner if they were injured as a result of that health care practitioner’s negligence to his or her own patient. What does this mean practically speaking? It opens the door for more lawsuits, lawsuits from people who were never your patient, but who may be impacted by a prescribing decision you make for your patient. It means that it is more important than ever to properly discuss with a patient any new medication they will be taking, and any specific dangers associated with that medication for example, not driving or using heavy machinery while on it. It will be increasingly important to document that these conversations have taken place in the event of a lawsuit down the road. Keep this in mind when adding any new medication to a patient’s regimen, and if a patient is on medications that can cause impairments it is worthwhile to periodically remind patients to use caution with such medications.