Bradshaw v. Daniel

Supreme Court of Tennessee, 1993


Mr. Johns went to the emergency room and, after a few days, died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. A week later, his wife came in to the hospital and also died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Their son then sued his father's doctor for not warning Mrs. Johns that her husband died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and that she might also have it so that she could be treated for it in time.

Procedural History:

  • Trial court denied defendant's motion for summary judgment, but granted an interlocutory appeal on the issue of the physician's legal duty.

  • Court of appeals refused to consider defendant's trial testimony and held that the facts were insufficient to show that the risk was enough to give rise to a duty.


Did defendant owe a duty to Mrs. Johns even though she was not his patient?

Defendant's Argument:

Defendant only owed a duty to Mr. Johns, not to his wife. He had no patient-physician relationship with her.


Defendant's second motion for summary judgment was on essentially the same ground as his earlier motions. He relied on his earlier motions and affidavits and plaintiff, in response, relied on the entire record. The trial judge heard the testimony when he denied the motion for summary judgment. There were no "extraordinary circumstances" to justify excluding defendant's testimony. The whole record will be considered.


For liability to be imposed, a duty must exist. This is a question of law, that reflects society's social requirements concerning the right of individuals to be protected from another's conduct.


While defendant is correct that a physician-patient relationship is required for a medical malpractice action, it is not necessary for an action based on negligence. A physician may owe a duty to a non-patient third part for injuries caused by his negligence if they were reasonably foreseeable.

This exact scenario has never been decided on before, but everybody has a duty to use reasonable care to refrain from conduct that will foreseeably cause injury to others. In general one has no affirmative duty to warn those endangered by the conduct of another. This is just nonfeasance—he has made the situation no worse; he just did not make it any better. Generally just misfeasance, creating a new risk of harm, is a basis for liability.

However, court have made exceptions for cases where the defendant has a special relationship to the person causing or foreseeably at risk from the danger. Courts have often found that this is sufficient to support a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect third persons against foreseeable risks emanating from a patient, whether a mental or a physical illness.

Here, defendant had a physician-patient relationship with Mr. Johns. Mrs. Johns was at risk of contracting the disease because she was in the same area with the infested ticks. Dr. Prater testified that defendant negligently failed to diagnose the disease and warn his patient's wife. Defendant even admitted that there is a medical duty to inform the family when Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is diagnosed.


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[T]he existence of the physician-patient relationship is sufficient to impose upon a physician an affirmative duty to warn identifiable third persons in the patient's immediate family against foreseeable risks emanating from a patient's illness.


Yes, in the facts most favorable to the plaintiff, defendant had a duty to warn Mrs. Johns. Reversed and remanded.