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There is no impediment, legal or otherwise, to recognizing a physician's duty to warn those known to be at risk of avoidable harm from a genetically transmissible condition. In terms of foreseeability especially, there is no essential difference between a genetic threat and the menace of infection, contagion or a threat of physical harm.
Donna Safer's claim arises from the patient-physician relationship in the 1950s and 1960s between her father, Robert Batkin, a resident of New Jersey, and Dr. George T. Pack, also a resident of New Jersey, who practiced medicine and surgery in New York City and treated Mr. Batkin there. It is alleged that Dr. Pack specialized in the treatment and removal of cancerous tumors and growths. Donna and her husband, Robet Safer (collectively, the “Safers”) filed a complaint against Dr. Pack. The Safers contended that multiple polyposis, a condition which Donna suffered from, was a hereditary condition that, if undiscovered and untreated, invariably lead to metastatic colorectal cancer. Donna’s father had also suffered from this condition. The Safers contended that the hereditary nature of the disease was known at the time Dr. Pack was treating Donna’s father, and that Dr. Pack was required, by medical standards then prevailing, to warn those at risk so that they might have the benefits of early examination, monitoring, detection and treatment, that would provide opportunity to avoid the most baneful consequences of the condition. The trial court dismissed the complaint. The Safers appealed.
Did the trial court err in holding that a physician had no "legal duty to warn a child of a patient of a genetic risk"?
The court held that a physician had a duty to warn those known to be at risk of avoidable harm from a genetically transmissible condition. The court held that there was no essential difference between the type of genetic threat at issue here and the menace of infection, contagion or a threat of physical harm. Accordingly, the court reversed the order of the trial court dismissing the complaint.