Supreme Court: Malpractice ruling has doctors concerned

A recent ruling from the Minnesota Supreme Court saying doctors can be sued for malpractice even if they're not directly treating a patient is causing angst in the state's medical and legal communities.

Posted: May 27, 2019 8:20 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A recent ruling from the Minnesota Supreme Court saying doctors can be sued for malpractice even if they're not directly treating a patient is causing angst in the state's medical and legal communities.

The high court said in its ruling last month that the decision was aimed at doctors whose decisions have consequences. The decision came in a case involving a hospital doctor who allegedly refused to admit a patient who was being treated by a nurse practitioner at the Essentia Health Clinic in Hibbing in August 2014.

The nurse spoke with Dr. Richard Dinter at Fairview Range Medical Center and asked him to admit 54-year-old Susan Warren because she was suffering from abdominal pain, fever, chills and other symptoms, according to the lawsuit from the patient's family. The lawsuit alleges Dinter declined admission after a 10-minute phone call.

But court records in the case show that the doctor and nurse disagree about several aspects of their conversation, including whether the nurse made the request for Warrant to be admitted. Warren died several days later.

The Star Tribune reports the patient's family sued in 2016, but both a district court and appeals court dismissed the lawsuit because Dinter was not directly treating the patient. But the Supreme Court ruled that such a relationship was not necessary to sue.

"We have never held that such a relationship is necessary to maintain a malpractice action under Minnesota law," Justice David Lillehaug wrote for the 5-2 majority.

The Supreme Court also argued that the lower courts ignored precedents going back 100 years.

The lawsuit now will head back to trial in St. Louis County District Court.

Thaddeus Pope, director of the Health Law Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, said the physician-patient relationship requirement has been commonly assumed and unquestionably cited.

"It was surprising, and I think that it is important to note that they were very clear that they were not making (a) new law," Pope said.

Medical groups say the opinion could subject doctors to more lawsuits. The Minnesota Medical Association sent a bulletin to its members, posing this scenario: Would a primary doctor be sued for failing to diagnose a patient's infectious disease, leading to someone else becoming ill?

"It seems to be changing the conventional wisdom around when liability exists," said Janet Silversmith, chief executive of the doctors' organization.

Fairview said it will continue defending the lawsuit.

"Dr. Dinter's response was appropriate based on the limited information provided," the company said in a statement, which added that the hospital believes "Fairview and Dr. Dinter will be found to have acted appropriately."

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