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North Dakota Supreme Court Rules that a Physician Does Not Owe a Duty of Care to Third Parties

December 24, 2019

At ISMIE, we monitor state and national medical litigation trends. Recently, North Dakota’s high court ruled in a case of first impression regarding third party culpability in a medical liability lawsuit.

The case Cichos, et. al. v. Dakota Eye Inst., PC centered on a whether a physician owed a duty to an injured third party for failure to warn a patient that his vision was below the minimum standard needed to operate a motor vehicle. The lawsuit was filed against an ophthalmologist following a fatal car accident caused by the visually-impaired patient. The suit claimed, among other things, that the physician owed a duty to third parties which has never been the law in North Dakota. The court examined rulings in other jurisdictions which also declined to impose such a duty, including Massachusetts and Iowa. The court distinguished cases of warning third parties versus jurisdictions that upheld allegations for injuries to third parties caused by actual medical treatment or providing medications to a patient who injured a third party.

The North Dakota Supreme Court rejected this legal theory on the grounds that North Dakota law, with the facts presented, does not extend medical liability to third parties and declined to extend the physician’s duty. Furthermore, the court considered how third-party liability might affect how doctors treat their patients, confidentiality of patient information, and other public policy arguments including increased litigation.

The court ruled that a physician may owe a duty of care to third parties if the danger in question was caused as a side effect of treatments provided by the physician, but such a duty did not exist solely because of the patient's medical condition.

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