Medical Malpractice Insurers - Pennsylvania Expands When Third-Parties Have Claims
July 22, 2014| Von George Barson
This is not the first case to test physician duties to individuals other than their patients, but it is perhaps the most recent case to allow an action. In a ruling with potentially significant ramifications, a Pennsylvania appellate court expanded a physician’s liability to a third-party with whom no doctor-patient relationship had previously existed (Matharu v. Muir). Prior Pennsylvania cases have generally held that a physician owed a duty only to his patient, with two limited exceptions:
(1) A mental health therapist who becomes aware of a specific immediate threat as to a readily identifiable third-party victim.
(2) A physician who negligently advises a patient about a communicable disease, which in turn is contracted by third-party.
What happened in Matharu? While having unique facts, Matharu greatly expanded this doctrine. The matter involved a pregnant patient whose blood lacked the Rh antigen. Specifically, a pregnant patient was determined to have blood that was RH-negative. At the same time, the father’s blood was determined to be Rh-positive. Consequently, the Rh-positive blood could enter the pregnant patient’s system causing the mother to create antibodies that can be lethal to the fetus. The patient was administered an Rh immunoglobin (RHoGAM) injection, and the infant did not have any significant health issues.
The patient became pregnant again the following year. At no time during the pregnancy or after delivery was an injection of RHoGAM provided. All parties are in agreement the negligence that forms the basis of this lawsuit is the failure to provide the injection during this time frame.
In a subsequent pregnancy, the patient was treated by new physicians (who were not the defendants). The infant died two days after birth as a result of blood-related antibodies.
The Pennsylvania court found that in the context of the physician-patient relationship, the physicians for the first two births owed a duty to the subsequent child (who died) despite never being involved in the treatment. In practical terms, the decision expands physician-patient duty of care to future third-parties to whom the physician provided no care.
It remains to be seen whether Matharu signals a significant legal shift. However, it is certain that the ruling will be cited in future cases in which negligence is alleged by third parties outside the immediate physician-patient relationship. Those challenges will not be limited to the OB/GYN scenario that is in Matharu. We will have to see if the courts in Pennsylvania, and any other states, follow the lead.