Jeff Segal, MD, JD, FACS

Utah’s highest court ruled that family members can sue a doctor if something goes wrong with their loved one’s care. Doctors, of course, owe a duty of care to their patients. But, if their care affects non-patients…well, that is mostly new territory.

Dr. Hugo Rodier, a primary care doctor, prescribed antidepressants (and other medications with potential psychiatric effects – such as steroids) to his patient, David Ragsdale.

Ragsdale’s wife, Kristy had requested a restraining order against him. Unfortunately, the restraining order was not effective – Ragsdale gunned down his wife. Ragsdale pled guilty to first degree felony murder and is serving a 20 years to life prison term. He supposedly took full responsibility for his actions. One caveat. He said he would not have murdered his wife had he not been on the medications.

Ragsdale’s children (via a conservator) filed a medical malpractice lawsuit. A lower court dismissed the suit noting the plaintiffs were not the doctor’s patients.

Utah’s Supreme Court overruled.

“Healthcare providers perform a societal function of undoubted social utility. But they are not entitled to an elevated status in tort law that would categorically immunize them from liability when their negligent prescriptions cause physical injury to nonpatients,” Justice Thomas Lee wrote in the high court’s unanimous opinion. “We uphold a duty of healthcare providers to nonpatients in the affirmative act of prescribing medication.”

So, there you have it. The list of potential plaintiffs is long.