Utah Supreme Court Allows Claims Against Doctors for Third-Party Injuries

The family of a woman killed by her husband can sue the husband’s doctor, the Utah Supreme Court held in February. In B.R. and C.R. v. West, et al, the children of Kristy Ragsdale sued the doctor and nurse practitioner who treated the children’s father, David Ragsdale, alleging that the mixture of medications they prescribed caused a deterioration of David Ragdale’s mental state that led to Kristy Ragsdale’s murder. The trial court ruled for the defendants, finding that no doctor-patient relationship existed between the plaintiffs and the defendants. The Supreme Court overturned the verdict, which could significantly impact medical practices all over the country. Some states already hold doctors liable for certain third-party injuries, but the question remains open in many situations.

David Ragsdale was a patient of Dr. Hugo Roeder and nurse practitioner Trina West at a clinic in Draper, Utah. According to the court’s opinion, West prescribed six or more medications for Ragsdale, under Roeder’s supervision. These included psychotropic drugs like Concerta, Valium, Paxil, and Doxepin; and the steroids pregnenolone and testosterone.

Ragsdale and his wife were reportedly estranged during this time, and she had petitioned for a restraining order against him. West reportedly modified Ragsdale’s drug regimen in November or December 2007, after he told her about the divorce and restraining order. While Ragsdale had all of these drugs in his system, he shot and killed Kristy Ragsdale the morning of Sunday, January 6, 2008 in their church parking lot. He pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in 2009 and will serve at least thirty years in prison. Although Ragsdale took responsibility for the killing, he said he does not believe he would have done it but for the medications.

The Ragsdales’ children, identified only as B.R. and C.R., were only four and nineteen months old at the time of the murder. Their conservator, William Jeffs, filed a lawsuit in 2010 against Roeder and West for medical malpractice in prescribing medications with alleged risks of psychiatric side effects. The trial judge dismissed the case in February 2011 on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were not patients of Roeder and West. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case directly, bypassing the appellate courts. It ruled in February 2012 that the defendants have a duty to nonpatients “to exercise reasonable care in the affirmative act of prescribing medications that pose a risk of injuries to third parties.”

The court’s ruling specifies that this duty applies to doctors “when potential risks might outweigh potential benefits,” noting that this holds true for other professions whose actions can affect third parties. The tricky issue for applying this rule in the future, of course, is that of foreseeability. Exactly what sort of side effects and future impacts on nonpatients is it reasonable to expect doctors to foresee? Courts will have to wrestle with this question in almost every future case involving third-party injuries.

People who have been injured as a result of the negligence or malpractice of a doctor or other medical professional may be entitled to compensation for their injuries, and the Washington DC medical malpractice lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen can help. Contact the firm today through our website or at (800) 654-1949 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Web Resources:

Opinion of the Court (PDF), B.R. and C.R., et al vs. West, et al, Supreme Court of the State of Utah, February 28, 2012

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Doctors and Medical Device Companies Square Off on Questions of Liability, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, January 27, 2012
Jury Awards $9 Million to Couple in Medical Malpractice Lawsuit, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, November 17, 2011
Washington DC Paramedic Error Was a Factor in Fatal 2008 “Acid Reflux” Case, Reports Office of the Inspector General, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, June 8, 2011

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