Drugs and duty in Utah

B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. Rodier, No. 20121098 (Utah Jan. 9, 2015). 

Under Utah law, a healthcare provider must exercise reasonable care when prescribing medications that pose a risk of injury to third parties. The Utah Supreme Court came to this conclusion in a 2012 case. There, a nurse practitioner had prescribed six medications to David Ragsdale, who, with all those drugs in his system, shot and killed his wife. Ragsdale’s children sued the nurse, claiming that her negligent prescriptions had led to the murder. The Utah Supreme Court held that the nurse owed a duty of reasonable care to the children, and so allowed the suit to proceed.

Today the court decides a related case. For besides suing the nurse, the Ragsdale children also asserted a claim against Dr. Hugo Rodier, the “consulting physician” to the prescribing nurse. Under Utah law, nurse practitioners can prescribe controlled substances so long as they do so in accordance with a plan they’ve developed in consultation with a physician—here, Dr. Rodier. The Ragsdale children allege that Dr. Rodier didn’t consult with the nurse before the nurse wrote the prescriptions for Ragsdale. And they argue that, by failing to consult, Dr. Rodier breached a duty of reasonable care to the children. The question the Utah Supreme Court must decide is whether Dr. Rodier owed a duty of reasonable care to third parties when supervising the nurse’s prescriptions. 

The Utah Supreme Court decides that Dr. Rodier didn’t owe Ragsdale’s children a duty. The obligation to consult with a physician is a duty that Utah law imposes on a nurse practitioner, not on a physician. So when a nurse practitioner doesn’t consult a physician when prescribing a controlled substance, that’s the nurse’s fault, not the physician’s. A physician cannot be sued simply because a nurse doesn’t follow through on her consultation obligation. The Ragsdale children’s claim against Dr. Rodier must therefore be dismissed.