In his ruling for the majority, the chief judge of the court wrote, “A physician owes a duty of reasonable care to everyone foreseeably put at risk by his failure to warn of the side effects of his treatment of a patient.”
That meant Dr. L had a duty to warn Mr. C that his medications could make him drowsy or disoriented and could even make him faint. The warning would have alerted Mr. C to the risk of an accident if he drove, and, if heeded, would have protected innocent third parties, such as the nine-year-old boy.
But the ruling was not unanimous. The dissenting judges felt it imposed too much responsibility on physicians, that it would lead to more lawsuits, and that the fear of litigation might affect the medication or course of treatment a physician chooses.
It is important to note that Dr. L has not been found liable yet. A jury will have to decide what caused the accident. Many scenarios are possible. Mr. C could have had a stroke, or fallen asleep at the wheel, or passed out for reasons unrelated to his prescriptions.
But if the jury finds that the medications caused Mr. C to lose consciousness and that he was driving because he believed his physician said it was okay, then Dr. L may be held responsible for the young boy’s death.
A label on a pill bottle does not negate your duty to talk to patients about medications. Always discuss side effects. Even in the case of ongoing renewals, periodically assess how medications are affecting the patient and remind him or her about potential side effects. This is particularly important with elderly patients, who may be more affected by prescription medications or whose many medicines may result in cumulative side effects.
Then keep a record that the patient has been warned. Document all conversations in the patient’s chart and note precise cautions regarding driving, operating machinery, etc.
Ms. Latner, a former criminal defense attorney, is currently a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.