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Insurance doctor owes duty of care to injured party

As reported in LawyersWeeklyUSA, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that even though a formal doctor-patient relationship does not exist, a doctor conducting an “Independent” Medical Exam owes a duty of reasonable care to the person examined.

A man injured his back while at work and his workers’ compensation carrier had him undergo an exam by someone it hired. The workers comp doctor reported that the man did not need further care and that he should have no work restrictions.

As a result, the employer terminated his benefits. However, the man’s condition worsened. In fact part of his spinal cord died and he developed a condition that caused constant pain. He took prescription pain and other medications to help him sleep and died of an accidental overdose.

His family sued the workers comp doctor – a jury found the doctor to be partially at fault. The doctor appealed, arguing that he owed the man no legal duty.

However, the Arizona Court of Appeals disagreed. “We … cannot envision a public benefit in encouraging a doctor with specific individualized knowledge not to investigate the symptoms of a cervical spine injury. We recognize the very real concern that imposing a duty on [the IME doctor] to practice reasonable care under the circumstances might create a chilling effect within the IME community. … [H]owever, ethical standards govern physicians, and they likely limit ‘the threatened flood of litigation’ to a ‘trickle.’ …

“We do not hold that every IME physician has a duty of care in every situation. In this case, [the IME doctor] was hired to determine the extent of [the decedent’s] work-related injury and make treatment recommendations. By agreeing to do so, he assumed a duty to ‘conform to the legal standard of reasonable care…”

The case is Ritchie v. Krasner, No. 1-CA-CV 08-0099.