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Do physicians owe a duty of care to non-patients?

A physician’s duty of care to their patient is an essential issue in many medical malpractice cases. However, what about a duty of care to a non-patient? Are there times when a physician can be legally liable for an injury that occurs to someone they never treated?

Actually, yes — although it isn’t always clear when that happens. Here’s what you should know:

When a patient threatens violence

If a patient makes an imminent, serious physical threat against another person, physicians (including psychiatrists) have a legal obligation under New Jersey’s laws to try to protect that person.

They may have to notify police about a patient’s intent — even if that requires telling the police something that the patient said in confidence. If they know how to reach the individual that is being threatened (such as a patient’s parent or spouse), they may also need to take steps to directly warn the patient of an impending attack.

When a doctor reasonably anticipates violence

A second requirement in the law puts a responsibility on the physician to take action to protect a non-patient when the physician can reasonably make a determination that a patient intends to carry out an act of violence.

If a patient is expressing hostility and rage toward someone specific and starts talking about revenge, a physician may need to take preventative measures to protect the identified target of the patient’s rage — even if the patient didn’t make an overt threat.

While these are very limited situations, they do happen. If you believe that a doctor failed in their legal and ethical obligation to warn you or a loved one of danger, it may be time to discuss a medical malpractice claim with an attorney.

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