Does A Doctor Have a Duty to Care for an Intoxicated Patient in New York?

An intoxicated individual came into your facility of their own free will and, for one reason or another, left the facility, thereafter coming to harm. In the wake of their accident, they have sued you and/or your medical facility for negligence. But does a New York doctor ever have a duty to treat an intoxicated patient? Thankfully, a high-profile ruling from the New York Court of Appeals clarified this vexing problem. For more information, please continue reading, then contact one of our experienced New York health care professional defense lawyers. Some questions you may have include:

Does a doctor have to treat an intoxicated patient in New York?

No. As a matter of fact, the New York Court of Appeals, in their landmark Kowalski v. St. Francis Hospital and Health Centers, et al., No. 128, (NY Ct. of App., June 26, 2013), held that, in essence, a physician’s duty does not allow, let alone mandate, the involuntary detention of intoxicated patients wishing to leave a hospital. In fact, unless emergency physicians and the hospital have such a duty, keeping an intoxicated patient against his or her will may constitute false imprisonment, a criminal act under New York law.

When does a New York doctor have a duty to detain an intoxicated individual?

Two legal theories allow for the involuntary detention of an intoxicated individual:

  • Common law: The doctor has a duty to forcibly restrain the patient under very narrow circumstances in which the patient is in truly imminent harm, such as when they are actually in the process of throwing themselves out of a window to escape nonexistent pursuers.
  • New York’s Mental Hygiene Law: If police brought the intoxicated individual in against their will and alcohol has substantially impaired the individual’s mental or physical functioning, the doctor may have a duty to detain the individual.

How do you prove that you lacked the duty to detain an intoxicated individual?

If the patient is not delusional, but able to walk by him- or herself and carry on a conversation, you might argue that he or she is in control of his or her faculties. Furthermore, the common law exception to a person’s right to freedom does not permit the denial of that right to someone who, in theory, would be safer in a detoxification facility than on the street.

Lastly, by coming in voluntarily, the intoxicated individual waived their right to protection from New York’s Mental Hygiene Law. Indeed, the New York Court of Appeals has upheld this argument in the past.

Speak with Paul E. Walker if you have any further questions.

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