All healthcare providers — physicians, nurses, therapists, etc. — owe a duty of care to the patient. In some instances, the provider also owes a duty of care to a third party. As evidenced by the following cases, these types of cases can be rather complex. They are best handled by experienced attorneys such as Jonathan Comitz and the team at Comitz Law. The following are examples of publicly documented Court Cases in the State of PA, and the Court’s rulings.
Maas v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside (Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 2020)
Prior to 2008, Terrance Andrews resided in a supported living facility under the supervision of and while receiving ongoing mental health treatment from appellants UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.
Andrews frequently expressed to appellants suicidal and homicidal ideation, complaining about his “neighbors” and others, including threats to kill a “neighbor” who had been knocking at his door in the middle of the night.
On May 9, 2008, he again reported homicidal ideation against a “neighbor” and a plan to stab the “neighbor” with scissors. Within 24 hours, Andrews returned to the Department of Emergency Care and expressed homicidal ideation against an unnamed “next-door” neighbor, and a brief voluntary hospitalization ensued. Following discharge, on May 15, 2008, he again described a plan “to kill the next-door neighbor and everyone.” Andrews did not identify any neighbor by name and appellants took no measures to warn any residents of Hampshire Hall regarding these threats.
On May 25, 2008, Andrews sought an in-patient admission at WPIC, asserting he was hearing voices, and having suicidal and homicidal thoughts. A case manager at
that facility dissuaded him from seeking admission and sent him home to his apartment with medication for agitation, and a promise to secure him placement in a personal care home within 36 hours. Four days later, on May 29, 2008, Andrews murdered Lisa Maas, a nineteen-year-old Pennsylvania Culinary Institute student, by stabbing her to death with scissors in her apartment located five doors away from Andrews’ own apartment.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court’s conclusion that the appellants had the duty to warn an identifiable group of approximately twenty people, i.e., the fourth-floor tenants of Hampshire Hall who were Mr. Andrews’s neighbors.
Hospodar v. Schick (Superior Court of Pennsylvania, 2005)
On October 18, 2002, Jack Smith operated his vehicle at a high rate of speed and in an uncontrolled fashion, and violently crashed into the rear of a stopped vehicle, causing the deaths of Patricia A. Shick and Sherry A. Zeis, occupants of the stopped vehicle. Smith’s erratic driving was caused by Smith having “blacked out.” Smith had previously been involved in two recent automobile accidents in which he “blacked out.”
On May 3, 2000, Smith was seen by Dr. Hospodar, who was aware that Smith had a history of “black out” automobile accidents, and that Smith lost his driver’s license as a result of the second accident. Dr. Hospodar’s medical work-up of Smith failed to reveal any rational explanation for the blackouts other than a seizure disorder. Both Dr. Hospodar and the Pittsburgh Neurology Associates were specifically aware that Smith was at a high risk for “blacking out” while driving an automobile, and that Smith could cause serious bodily injury to other persons if he were to black out while driving. Despite the above, Dr. Hospodar failed to diagnose Smith with a seizure disorder and failed to provide him with medication or any other treatment for a seizure disorder.
Following Dr. Hospodar’s examination of Smith on May 3, 2000, Dr. Hospodar filled out a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) form which included the question, “From a medical standpoint only, do you consider [Jack Smith] physically and/or mentally competent to operate a motor vehicle?” Dr. Hospodar answered “I do not know.” Later that month, in responding to oral follow-up questions from PennDOT representatives, Dr. Hospodar advised them that it was safe for Smith to operate a motor vehicle. Approximately five months later the subject fatal accident occurred.
Appellants argued that they owed no duty to the third parties in this case and that the decedents were not foreseeable victims of Dr. Hospodar’s actions or inactions. They further argued that the Motor Vehicle Act does not allow for a physician to be held liable to a third party who has been injured by one of the physician’s patients. The Superior Court agreed, holding that Dr. Hospodar was not liable.
Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development Inc. (Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 1999)
Teresa Hausler and Gad Joseph (“Joseph”) girlfriend and boyfriend, were cohabitating in Philadelphia. Joseph was diagnosed as suffering from, among other illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol problems, and explosive and schizo-affective personality disorders. He also had a history of physically and verbally abusing Ms. Hausler.
Several weeks prior to June 27, 1991, Ms. Hausler ended her relationship with Joseph, moved from their Philadelphia residence, and relocated to Reading, Pennsylvania. On the morning of June 27, 1991, at or about 9:25 a.m., Joseph telephoned his counselor, Mr. Scuderi, and advised him that he was going to kill Ms. Hausler. Mr. Scuderi immediately scheduled and carried out a therapy session with Joseph at 11:00 that morning. Mr. Scuderi recommended that Joseph voluntarily commit himself to a psychiatric hospital, but Joseph refused. At 12:00 p.m., the therapy session ended, and Joseph was permitted to leave the Center “based solely upon his assurances that he would not harm” Ms. Hausler.
At 12:15 p.m., Mr. Scuderi received a telephone call from Ms. Hausler informing him that she was in Philadelphia en-route to retrieve her clothing from their apartment. Mr. Scuderi instructed Ms. Hausler not to go to the apartment and to return to Reading. Ms. Hausler ignored Mr. Scuderi’s instructions and went to the residence. She was fatally shot by Joseph at or about 12:30 p.m.
Joseph was subsequently arrested and convicted of the murder of Ms. Hausler. Based upon these facts, Appellant filed two wrongful death and survival actions, alleging that Appellees negligently failed to properly warn Ms. Hausler that Joseph presented a clear and present danger of harm to her.
The Court opined that a duty to warn arises only where a specific and immediate threat of serious bodily injury has been conveyed by the patient to the professional regarding a specifically identified or readily identifiable victim. Having acknowledged that the duty existed, the Court concluded that Mr. Scuderi’s warning was “reasonable as a matter of law”.
DiMarco v. Lynch Homes (Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 1990)
On June 18, 1985, Janet Viscichini, a blood technician, went to the Lynch Home in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, to take a blood sample from one of the residents. During the procedure Ms. Viscichini’s skin was accidentally punctured by the needle which she had used to take blood from the patient. Ms. Viscichini learned that the patient was a carrier of hepatitis. She immediately sought treatment from Doctors Giunta and Alwine, two of the appellants.
Viscichini was advised that if she remained symptom-free for six weeks, she would not have been infected by the hepatitis virus. She was not told to refrain from sexual relations for any period of time following her exposure, but she practiced sexual abstinence until eight weeks after the exposure. As she had remained symptom free during that time, she resumed sexual relations with appellee, Joseph DiMarco. In September of 1985, Ms. Viscichini was diagnosed with Hepatitis B. Three months later, DiMarco was diagnosed with the same disease.
The appellants argued that they had no third-party duty of care. In rejecting that argument, the Supreme Court held that “If a third person is in that class of persons whose health is likely to be threatened by the patient, and if erroneous advice is given to that patient to the ultimate detriment of the third person, the third person has a cause of action against the physician, because the physician should recognize that the services rendered to the patient are necessary for the protection of the third person.”
The law can be very intricate and complex. Hiring an attorney who understands the complexities of the law is critical. To learn more about duty of care and healthcare providers’ liability to third-parties, call Comitz Law at 570-829-1111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.