Utah Supreme Court reaffirms legal principle that a person cannot be held liable for failing to act unless a "special relationship" exists between that person and the injured party.
We all have a general duty to act reasonably when we act, such as when we drive or cross a street; however, the law will rarely impose liability for failing to act, such as choosing not to call the police when observing a robbery in progress. In most cases, we can only be held liable for failing to act when we have a “special relationship” with the injured party. Special relationships include a doctor’s duty to a patient; a teacher’s duty to a student; a babysitter’s duty to the minor she is tending; and a parent’s duty to her child. For example, if you see a child in the park seriously injure herself on the monkey-bars, you likely have no legal duty to stop what you are doing and come to that child’s aid, unless you are that child’s parent, guardian, or babysitter. The Utah Supreme Court recently addressed special relationship-based liability in the case of B.R. v. Rodier, 2015 UT 1, 2015 WL 122251.
David Ragsdale murdered his wife Kristy in January 2008 while under the influence of medications prescribed to him by a nurse practitioner. There is no question the nurse practitioner had a legal duty to act reasonably in prescribing medication to Ragsdale. At the time of the murder, the nurse practitioner had prescribed at least six different medications to Ragsdale.
However, this case did not involve the nurse practitioner’s duty. Instead, the issue was whether Dr. Rodier, a physician with whom the nurse practitioner could have consulted if she had wished, had a duty to reach out to the nurse practitioner and consult with her before she wrote each controlled substance prescription for Ragsdale. Dr. Rodier had never met Ragsdale. Rather, he simply was available for consultation should the nurse practitioner have any questions about her patients. Before deciding the issue, the court noted that the plaintiffs’ argument was that Dr. Rodier should be liable because he failed to act, not because he had performed any particular act negligently. The court reiterated we all have a duty to act reasonably in our actions, but no such duty attaches to our failure to act except in cases of a special relationship.
The court then discussed whether Dr. Rodier had a special relationship with Ragsdale that would require Dr. Rodier to consult with the nurse practitioner prior to her writing prescriptions for Ragsdale, even if the nurse practitioner did not reach out to him for a consultation. The court relied on various laws that regulate a physician’s conduct and determined that Dr. Rodier did not have a duty to consult on each prescription provided by the nurse practitioner. In essence, Dr. Rodier’s mere availability to consult with the nurse practitioner if she had questions regarding her care of Ragsdale did not create a special relationship between Dr. Rodier and Ragsdale. Because Dr. Rodier did not have a special relationship with Ragsdale, he was not legally required to act on Ragsdale’s behalf, and thus could not be held liable for failing to act.
Litigants should not allege a person is liable for failing to act without also alleging the person had a special relationship duty to act.