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“Pill Mill” doctor not liable for killing committed by Patient

A drug addict shot and killed four people during a robbery to procure drugs at a pharmacy  in Suffolk County, New York.  In the ensuing law suits for wrongful death, the families of the victims claimed that a physician who had prescribed narcotics to the killer, was partly responsible for the deaths.  The families claimed that the physician operated a pain management clinic that functioned as a “pill mill”.  They claimed that he knowingly prescribed narcotics to drug addicts like the killer, and to people who had previously overdosed on drugs.

There is an old expression among lawyers that “tough cases make bad law”.  Here, for example, an appellate court dismissed the case against the physician, saying that he did not owe a duty to the general public to refrain from overprescribing addictive drugs in an “irresponsible and potentially criminal manner”.  The court explained that a duty to control the conduct of others only arises where there is “a special relationship” between the defendant and the third person whose actions expose the plaintiff to harm.  And whether a “special relationship” exists can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.  Because the killer and the victims were strangers to one another, the court concluded in this case that the physician did not owe a duty to the victims.

The concept of duty in the law of torts is informed by precedent, notions of fairness, foreseeability and public policy.  And it is not always intuitive. The natural human desire to provide a remedy to everyone who is injured must be tempered by the social and financial need for limits of liability. Sometimes, duty is imposed by statute.  More often, however, it is determined by courts. 

Cases involving attenuated notions of tort duty, such as the tragic case that arose out of the pharmacy shootings, point up the importance of consulting attorneys experienced in this area of the law, like the attorneys at Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson.

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