Physician’s Duty to Warn Patient of Danger of Driving Not Extended to Third Party Motor Vehicle Accident Victim, Patient had Seizure Causing Crash

A patient was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. A physician treated his condition. Fourteen months after the tumor was diagnosed, the tumor caused the patient to suffer a grand mal seizure while driving. He lost control of his vehicle and struck another man who was exiting a vehicle. The man who was struck suffered a number of injuries. About six months later, the patient suffering from the brain tumor died.


The victim of the car accident sued the patient’s physician for negligence, alleging that the physician breached a duty owed to the accident victim to control the patient's behavior arising from a special relationship between the physician and the patient or, alternatively, that the physician breached a duty owed to the accident victim by failing to warn the patient not to drive. The Superior Court Department entered summary judgment in favor of the physician. The accident victim filed an application for direct appellate review.


The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment. The court held that the physician owed no duty to the accident victim to control the patient's behavior. A medical professional, other than a mental health professional, owes no duty to a third person arising from any claimed special relationship between the medical professional and the patient. The court also held that the physician did not owe the accident victim a duty to warn the patient not to drive.


The court distinguished this case from prior cases in which it had held that a physician's duty to a patient to provide medical treatment that meets the relevant standard of care may require a physician to warn a patient of the risks associated with his or her treatment, such as informing the patient of the side effects of prescribed medications if the physician deems this information to be necessary and relevant to the patient making an informed decision. The court reasoned that unlike the risks associated with the treatment a doctor provides to a patient, the risk that this patient posed to third parties could not be traced back to any affirmative treatment or medication prescribed by physician. The court concluded that the physician's mere act of accepting a patient with a naturally occurring tumor could not be the basis for imposing a duty on the physician to an unlimited number of people with whom he had no relationship, with attendant liability for harm caused by the effects of the medical condition.


See: Medina v. Hochberg, 2013 WL 1924308 (Mass., May 13, 2013) (not designated for publication).