In a decision that critics charge could lead to an uptick in certain types of medical malpractice lawsuits, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled last month that doctors owe a duty of care to some third-party non-patients, according to a July 12 report in the Hartford Courant.
The decision turns on a case that pitted an anonymous woman against a Norwalk internist.
In 2013, the woman and her boyfriend, whose name was also withheld in the suit, began a relationship. Before they became physically intimate, however, both agreed to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
The woman turned out to be disease free. But the man, tested under the internist’s supervision, was found to be infected with the herpes simplex virus. Soon afterward, an employee of the medical practice, tasked by the doctor to communicate this result, mistakenly reported a negative rather than a positive outcome.
After the couple’s relationship became sexual, the woman, in time, experienced herpes outbreaks. This led her partner to follow up with the internist, who apologized after learning of his employee’s error.
The woman then sued the internist. At trial, the defense moved to have her negligence suit dismissed, arguing that it was actually a medical malpractice suit that couldn’t move forward because the physician and the woman never had a doctor-patient relationship.
The trial court agreed with the defense. However, on appeal, the state’s high court saw things differently. In a 4-3 majority opinion, the justices found that the plaintiff’s claim was in fact one of ordinary negligence. They also found that — at least under the specific circumstances outlined in the case — a physician not in a standard doctor-patient relationship nevertheless “owes a duty of care to an identifiable third party.”
The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association — which supports non-patient negligence claims — applauded the decision. But hospital and doctor groups, including the American Medical Association, argued on behalf of the defendant that a ruling for the plaintiff would result in an increase in medical malpractice claims by non-patients.