1998 -NMSC- 47, Lester ex rel. Mavrogenis v. Hall

Citation970 P.2d 590,1998 NMSC 47,126 N.M. 404
Decision Date23 November 1998
Docket NumberNo. 24,653,24,653
Parties, 1998 -NMSC- 47 Barbara LESTER, by and through her guardian and conservator, Leo MAVROGENIS, Plaintiff, v. E.B. HALL, M.D., Defendant.
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

SERNA, Justice.

8B1} Plaintiff Barbara Lester, a third party non-patient, alleges that Defendant physician E.B. Hall's negligent treatment of his patient, Merlin Andersen, caused Andersen to injure Lester in an automobile accident. The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico certified the case to this Court pursuant to Rule 12-607 NMRA 1998 (certification from federal courts) on the question of whether Hall owes a legal duty to Lester. This Court has previously held that a physician owes a duty to "persons injured by patients driving automobiles from a doctor's office when the patient has just been injected with drugs known to affect judgment and driving ability" in Wilschinsky v. Medina, 108 N.M. 511, 515, 775 P.2d 713, 717 (1989). Because we do not extend the duty articulated in Wilschinsky to prescription cases under this fact pattern, we answer the certified question in the negative.

Facts and Procedural Background

¶2 The District Court certified the case to this Court on the following question of law:

Does a physician owe a legal duty to a non-patient who is injured in a collision with a motor vehicle, operated by the physician's patient, who was last treated by the physician five days before the collision, and whose ability to drive a vehicle allegedly was impaired by medications prescribed by the physician, who (1) allegedly improperly monitored his patient's medication and (2) allegedly failed to warn his patient that the medication could impair the patient's driving ability?

The District Court included a statement of facts relevant to this case:

[Hall] prescribed lithium, in addition to other medications, to his patient while treating him for a medical condition. Factual disputes exist[ ] as to whether [Hall] properly monitored his patient's lithium levels. Failure to do so allegedly could cause the patient to suffer toxicity with side effects that could impair one's driving ability. Factual disputes also exist as to whether [Hall] warned the patient concerning the side-effects of the lithium and the effects that lithium toxicity may have on the patient's ability to perform certain activities, including driving. Five days after [Hall] last treated him, the patient, allegedly in an impaired condition resulting from toxic levels of lithium in his system, drove a motor vehicle and caused an accident in which [Lester] was injured.

¶3 The District Court noted that the facts in this case are outside the narrow factual scope of the duty we recognized in Wilschinsky and that the holding of that case should not be construed to create a general duty to the "entire public for any injuries suffered for which an argument of causation can be made." Id. at 515, 775 P.2d at 717. We narrowly drew our holding in order to emphasize that courts should consider with great caution whether the facts of particular cases are appropriate for recognizing physicians' duties to third parties under the principles articulated in Wilschinsky. See id.; see also Turpie v. Southwest Cardiology Assocs., 1998-NMCA-042, p 11, 124 N.M. 787, 955 P.2d 716 (noting that "the Court intended to limit Wilschinsky to its specific circumstance" and declining to "extend its rationale, as such, to the medical malpractice arena"). "[W]e specifically decline[d] to address the issue of whether under any facts, negligently prescribing drugs could give rise to third-party liability." Wilschinsky 108 N.M. at 514, 775 P.2d at 716. We conclude that, under the principles articulated in Wilschinsky and the public policy of New Mexico, Hall does not owe a duty to Lester on the facts of this case, and we therefore join a substantial number of jurisdictions declining to extend physicians' duties to non-patients for prescription-involved situations. Wilschinsky v. Medina:

Physicians' Duty to Third Persons in New Mexico

¶4 "Whether a practicing physician in New Mexico owes a duty to third persons who foreseeably may be harmed by the physician's negligence in treatment of his [or her] patient" is addressed under very specific facts in Wilschinsky, 108 N.M. at 513, 775 P.2d at 715. In Wilschinsky, a physician injected two drugs, including a narcotic, into his patient, Medina, who had already ingested a third drug. Id. at 512, 775 P.2d at 714. These "drugs could cloud a person's judgment and physical abilities and create a risk to that person in driving a car." Id. Medina was involved in a serious car accident within a short time (approximately seventy minutes) of receiving the drugs, injuring Wilschinsky, a third party. Id. This Court framed the issue under those facts as "whether a doctor owes a duty to third parties from treatment of an outpatient when the doctor has given the patient an injection of drugs that could clearly impair the patient's ability to reason and to operate an automobile." Id. at 514, 775 P.2d at 716.

¶5 Our determination that a duty existed involved a "careful balancing," taking " 'into account the likelihood of injury, the magnitude of the burden of guarding against it and the consequences of placing that burden upon the defendant.' " Id. at 513, 775 P.2d at 715 (quoting Kirk v. Michael Reese Hosp. & Med. Ctr., 117 Ill.2d 507, 111 Ill.Dec. 944, 513 N.E.2d 387, 396 (Ill.1987)). We then applied the balancing test of Kirk and concluded: (1) that the likelihood of a car accident "immediately following injection of a narcotic in combination with other drugs is high;" (2) that when the physician administers the narcotic in his or her office the burden of "guarding against that foreseeable danger is not unreasonable if the doctor is judged by standards of normal medical procedures, rather than subjected to after-the-fact speculative attack;" and (3) that "if the scope of the doctor's duty is limited to the professional standards of acceptable medical practice, the additional burden on the doctor's treatment decisions is negligible." Wilschinsky, 108 N.M. at 515, 775 P.2d at 717. These principles, as applied with caution to cases involving defendant physicians and third party non-patients, establish a general framework under which a court may determine the existence of a duty.

Application of the Wilschinsky
Balancing Test

¶6 Based on the District Court's statement of relevant facts, we determine that the likelihood of injury to Lester is not foreseeable to the degree required in order to warrant a duty. The likelihood that a patient using prescription lithium will cause a car accident five days after contact with the doctor is considerably more remote in comparison to a patient who, injected with a narcotic, will cause an accident while driving away from the doctor's office. The effects of lithium on driving abilities is far less certain on this record than the effects of narcotics in Wilschinsky.

¶7 Although it is not unreasonably burdensome for a physician to guard against injury to the patient or third parties when he or she injects a patient with medication in his or her office, based on this record, we determine that the magnitude of the burden a duty to third parties places upon a physician prescribing lithium is too high. As we stated in Wilschinsky, "unlike the prescription cases, the administration of [narcotic] drugs was within the doctor's presence, in the doctor's office under his direction and timing, making reasonable preventative measures of whatever type easier to implement, and, at the same time, creating a higher degree of patient reliance on the doctor's professional judgment." 108 N.M. at 514-15, 775 P.2d at 716-17 (emphasis added). In this prescription case, Andersen's taking of the drug outside of Hall's control made preventative measures more difficult and reliance on professional judgment more remote. This is a fundamental distinction between a physician medicating a patient in his or her office, where the physician is liable to third parties when he or she is directly aware of the effect of the medication, and here, where the patient takes the medication while not under the direct control and supervision of the physician. The physician in Wilschinsky had the opportunity to directly observe the effects of the medication which he was injecting into his patient. The involvement of the doctor in directly administering the medication and the amount of control he had over his office and the patient in Wilschinsky were much greater relative to this case, in which Hall last saw his patient five days earlier. Further, considering that lithium is not a narcotic (which has a clearer effect on driving) requiring injection (indicative of the doctor's control) but instead is a prescription non-narcotic medication, Hall had significantly less control over how the patient would take it.

¶8 The consequences of placing upon Hall the burden of guarding against Lester's injury also militates against extension of the duty. To extend a duty from Hall to Lester under the circumstances presented by this case would have a potentially serious chilling effect on the use of prescription medication in medical care. Another consequence would be the potential intrusion upon the indispensable loyalty which physicians must maintain towards their patients regarding their medical care and treatment decisions. As we stated in Wilschinsky, doctors "should not be asked to weigh notions of liability in their already complex...

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    ...of care extended to the nonpatient under these facts. Id. ¶ 14 ; but cf. Lester ex rel. Mavrogenis v. Hall , 1998-NMSC-047, ¶ 3, 126 N.M. 404, 970 P.2d 590 (refusing to recognize a health care provider's duty to a nonpatient for negligently prescribing medication outside of the facts presen......
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