Question: In response to increasing awareness and concern over abuse and addiction to prescription painkillers, physicians and other health care providers have been frequently asking me:
"Can I be held legally responsible if a patient who I have prescribed controlled substances drives while impaired and causes a car accident that results in harm to the patient or other persons?"
Many physicians and health care providers under-estimate their potential exposure to liability or are aware of what they need to do to protect the patient, the public and themselves.
Short Answer: The short answer is that the issue has not be clearly addressed in Oklahoma, but medical malpractice cases and applicable Oklahoma laws leave the door open for patients and injured parties to bring lawsuits against physicians in circumstances where patients drive while impaired and who are not properly warned by physicians not to drive or when a physician does not take measures to prevent a patient from driving that he/she knows is impaired. A patient or third parties can bring a negligence lawsuit against a physician or provider who owes them a duty of care. One of the most important considerations in establishing a duty of care is foreseeability. Generally, a physician/provider owes a duty of care to all persons who are foreseeably endangered by his/her conduct with respect to all risks which make the conduct unreasonably dangerous.
"It is highly likely that a judge and/or jury would determine that a physician/provider who did not take reasonable steps to prevent a patient from driving while impaired is responsible to any persons injured by that patient."
There are examples from other states of physicians being sued, and being held legally and financially responsible, when a patient drives while impaired and causes a car accident, especially if the physician failed to warn the patient about possible impairment while taking prescribed drugs or if the physician permits the patient to leave the office and drive when he/she should have known that the patient is impaired. A more detailed answer, with statutory citations and case law examples, can be found on our website here.
What should Physicians/Providers do?
Physicians/providers should explain to patients, and document the counseling, the potential side-effects of taking medications and warn them not to drive if they experiencing any side-effects. If the physician becomes aware that the patient is experiencing side-effects and refuses to discontinue driving, then the physician should consider reporting the patient to the Department of Public Safety.
About the Author
Cori H. Loomis, J.D. is an associate attorney at Christensen Law Group, PLLC. She is an expert in healthcare law, employment issues, and business transactions. You can read more about her and her legal experience here.