Healthcare Providers Owe Duty Not to Prescribe Medications That Cause Patients to Harm Third Parties

While taking several psychiatric medications prescribed by the defendant physician, a patient shot and killed his wife. The decedent’s minor children sued the physician for negligent prescription.


The defendant physician argued that healthcare providers do not owe a duty to a non-patient who has been injured by a patient unless the patient has a special relationship with the provider—such as when the provider has custody or control of the patient, or when the provider is on notice that the patient is uniquely dangerous to specified third parties.


On appeal, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that a special relationship is required only when a claim is based on an omission or a failure to act, and that negligent acts of affirmative conduct do carry a duty of care. Therefore, a physician owes non-patients a duty to exercise reasonable care in the affirmative act of prescribing medications that pose a risk of injury to third parties.


Also, the court found that whether the drug interactions and psychological considerations at stake would lead a healthcare provider to take additional precautions in prescribing medications to a patient based on foreseeability that the patient might become violent or dangerous was a question of breach of duty, as opposed to the existence of a duty, in this action by the patient's children in which they asserted that the providers' affirmative prescription of certain medications to the patient caused him to have a violent outburst and fatally shoot the children's mother. And, whether the precise mixture of drugs prescribed to the patient foreseeably caused the violent outburst in which the patient fatally shot his wife was a question of proximate cause, rather than one of duty.


The lower court’s dismissal of the action was reversed with the Utah Supreme Court stating, “Healthcare providers perform a societal function of undoubted social utility. But they 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 non-patients. We uphold a duty of healthcare providers to non-patients in the affirmative act of prescribing medication, and reverse the district court's conclusion to the contrary.” B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. West, 2012 WL 621341, 2012 UT 11 (Utah Feb 28, 2012) (not designated for publication).