Who is potentially liable if you or a member of your family is struck by a car driven by a someone who has a medical emergency such as a seizure, diabetic crisis or sudden loss of consciousness? A recent case from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court answers this question as it relates to the possible liability of a physician. In Medina vs. Hochberg, a doctor whose patient had a seizure while driving struck Richard Medina. Mr. Medina suffered serious injuries requiring multiple surgeries. Mr. Medina sued Dr. Hochberg, who was treating the patient for a brain tumor, claiming that Dr. Hochberg should have warned the patient not to drive. The patient had previously had a grand mal seizure which had led to the diagnosis of his tumor. Dr. Hochberg had explained that Massachusetts law would prohibit the patient from driving for six months. After this six-month period, Dr. Hochberg continued to prescribe medication for the patient’s seizures which were described as ‘sensory’ seizures that would not impact the patient’s activities. Dr. Hochberg did not caution the patient not to drive and was aware that the patient had resumed driving as of the time that he struck Mr. Medina.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that there was ‘no duty’ owed by Dr. Hochberg to Mr. Medina as a member of the general public. Negligence law requires that there be a duty to the injured person before liability can be imposed. The Court reasoned that imposing this duty would interfere with the physician-patient relationship. The essence of the Court’s decision is that in Massachusetts a doctor does not owe a duty to non-patients to “…warn his or her patients of the dangers of driving posed by a patient’s underlying medical condition.”

The Court contrasted this situation with one it faced in 2007 in the case of Coombs vs. Florio. In that personal injury case, the Court decided that a doctor has a duty to the general public to warn the patient of the “…known side effects of medication that the doctor prescribes which might impair the patient’s ability as a motorist.” Thus, the Medina and Coombs cases answer the question of a doctor’s liability to a third party injured by a patient’s driving: If the accident was caused by an underlying medical condition, there is no liability. If the accident was caused by the doctor’s failure to warn of the side effects on driving of prescribed treatment, the doctor may be liable.

SUGARMAN attorneys have an extensive history of representing clients who have been injured in motor vehicle accidents. If you have been hurt in an accident and wish to speak to one of our attorneys regarding liability, please fill out a Contact Form, call us at (617) 542-1000 or e-mail info@sugarman.com.