Under the law of New Jersey, when a person is referred to a physician for a pre-employment physical, a physician-patient relationship is created at least to the extent of the examination, and a duty to perform a professionally reasonable and competent examination exists. A professionally unreasonable examination that is detrimental to the examinee is not immunized from liability because a third party authorized or paid for the exam. Included within the notion of a reasonable and competent examination is the need to take reasonable steps to make information available timely to the examinee of any findings that pose an imminent danger to the examinee's physical or mental well-being.
Defendant health care provider examined plaintiff's husband prior to his employment, pursuant to a contract between his employer and a health care company that subcontracted examination responsibilities to defendant health care provider. The contract between the health care company and defendant health care provider required the reporting of abnormal findings to the health care company. Defendant physician discovered X-ray anomalies indicating possible cancer and noted that in the report to the health care company, but no one ever told the husband who later died. Plaintiff sued defendants, and the trial court found for defendants. The appellate court affirmed. Plaintiff further appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in letting the jury consider defendants' contract with the health care company in determining whether they owed her husband a duty to disclose dangerous conditions. The state supreme court reversed the trial court’s judgment.
Did defendant physician, who was retained to perform a pre-employment physical examination, have a non-delegable duty to inform his patient of a potentially serious medical condition?
It was error for the trial court to allow the jury to consider the contract between the health care company and defendant health care provider in determining whether defendant physician exercised reasonable care in notifying only the health care company. Despite the absence of a traditional doctor-patient relationship, under ordinary rules of negligence, defendant physician had a nondelegable duty to conduct a reasonable, competent examination, and that necessarily included making critical information available to an examinee.