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McElwain v. Van Beek - 447 N.W.2d 442 (Minn. Ct. App. 1989)


A duty to a third-party non-patient has been recognized only in a limited number of situations. One circumstance in which a duty has been recognized is where the physician's patient poses a danger of harm to an identifiable third person. The Supreme Court of Minnesota has similarly limited a physician's duty to warn to cases where the patient makes specific threats against identifiable third parties. Physicians have also been found to have a duty to control their patients where they present a danger to a third party. The duty to control a patient only exists where the physician has the ability to control and the harm is foreseeable.


On Oct. 2, 1986, plaintiff Georgiana McElwain's younger brother cut the bridge of his nose and was taken to defendant Minneapolis Children's Medical Center ("Center") emergency room by McElwain and her mother. Both McElwain and her mother were permitted to remain in the emergency room while he was being treated. McElwain was standing next to her brother and holding his hand when the physician, defendant Dr. Allen Van Beek, administered a local anesthetic. McElwain subsequently fainted and fell to the floor. As a result of her fall she sustained a fractured skull and permanent loss of hearing in her right ear. McElwain filed an action in Minnesota state court against Van Beek and the Center seeking compensation for injuries she suffered. No evidence was presented that linked McElwain’s sudden faint to anything in the emergency room. McElwain stated that she was not squeamish at the sight of blood nor has she ever fainted upon seeing blood. Van Beek filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted; the case was dismissed "in its entirety." Shortly after an order for trial was filed, McElwain's attorney requested a clarification as to the status of the action against the Center. The trial court issued an amended order stating that no action remained against either defendant. McElwain then appealed.


Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment on the ground that, in a medical malpractice action, a physician ddid not owe a duty of care to a non-patient?




The appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court noted that a duty to a third-party non-patient had been recognized only in a limited number of situations. One such circumstance was whether the doctor's patient posed a danger of harm to an identifiable third person. Another circumstances was when the doctor had a duty to control the patient where the patient presented a danger to a third party. The court concluded that neither circumstance was applicable because the patient, McElwain's younger brother, posed no threat, and he was not the cause McElwain's injury. There was no relationship between McElwain and Van Beek. As for McElwain's claim that the Center was vicariously liable for Van Beek's negligence, the court ruled that Van Beek was not an employee but an independent contractor, and regardless, the Center could not have been vicariously liable when Van Beek himself was not liable.

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