Ritz v. Ramsay, 2023 Pa. Super. LEXIS 540 (November 14, 2023) (Stabile, J.).
Appellants, Jeffrey A. Ritz, as executor of the estate of Joseph H. Cummins (the “Decedent”), and Jolene L. Cummins, appeal from the August 9, 2022 order sustaining the preliminary objections of Appellees RHJ Medical Center, Inc. (“RHJ”), Denise L. Shinsky, Keri A. Csikesz, Dennis Jones, Kathy Jones, and Keith Jones (we refer to the four individual Appellees collectively with RHJ, as the “RHJ Parties.”). We affirm.
The pertinent allegations in Appellants’ August 1, 2019 complaint, which we accept as true, are that on December 24, 2016, the Decedent was hit by a car while he was running and suffered fatal injuries. Matthew J. Ramsay was the driver. Ramsay was a patient at RHJ, a methadone clinic where he received a larger than normal dose of methadone on the day of the accident. Ramsay’s post-accident blood and urine samples revealed the presence of marijuana and alprazolam in addition to methadone. The RHJ Parties were aware, based on prior blood tests, that Ramsay had repeatedly used nonprescription antianxiety drugs and marijuana during the course of his methadone treatment, in violation of their directives. Appellants therefore alleged that the RHJ Parties knew or should have known that providing Ramsay a larger than normal dose of methadone posed an unreasonable risk to the public.
The trial court found that Appellants failed to state a claim against the RHJ Parties because they owed no cognizable duty to the Decedent under the facts alleged in the complaint.
“Under common law, as a general rule, there is no duty to control the conduct of a third party to protect another from harm.” Emerich v. Philadelphia Ctr. for Hum. Dev., Inc., 554 Pa. 209, 720 A.2d 1032, 1036 (Pa. 1998). Our courts have recognized such a duty in limited circumstances where a special relationship exists. Id. These special relationships are “a parent’s duty to control a child; a master’s duty to control a servant; a possessor of land’s duty to control a licensee; and the duty of those in charge of individuals with dangerous propensities to control those individuals.” Brisbine v. Outside In School of Experiential Educ., Inc., 2002 PA Super 138, 799 A.2d 89, 93 (Pa. Super. 2002) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 316-19), appeal denied, 572 Pa. 746, 816 A.2d 1101 (Pa. 2003).
Appellants argue that the RHJ Parties owed a duty to Decedent in this case, relying on DiMarco v. Lynch Homes-Chester County, Inc., 525 Pa. 558, 583 A.2d 422 (Pa. 1990). There, our Supreme Court held that the defendant healthcare provider owed a duty to its patient’s sexual partner.
Similarly, in Emerich, the Supreme Court held that a healthcare provider had a duty to warn of a patient’s threat of serious bodily injury to a “specifically identified or readily identifiable third party.” Emerich, 720 A.2d at 1043.
In essence, DiMarco and Emerich identified two special relationships in which a health care provider owes a duty to an ascertainable non-patient third party. In this case, Appellants invites us to expand the holdings of DiMarco and Lynch to encompass a foreseeable risk to a segment of the public susceptible to injury by a motor vehicle driven by the patient of a methadone clinic. In this past, this Court has consistently declined similar invitations.
In McCandless v. Edwards, 2006 PA Super 247, 908 A.2d 900 (Pa. Super. 2006), appeal denied, 592 Pa. 768, 923 A.2d 1174 (Pa. 2007), the plaintiffs accused the defendant methadone clinic of oversupplying its patient with methadone in violation of federal regulations. A family member of the patient stole some of the patient’s methadone and sold it to the decedent, who fatally overdosed on it. Id. at 902. In discerning whether a duty existed, the McCandless Court relied on the following five-factor test:
(1) The relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the actor’s conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and (5) the overall public interest in the proposed solution.
Id. at 903-04. In McCandless, there was no relationship between the parties, the methadone clinic provided a valuable service of rehabbing drug addicts; it was not foreseeable that methadone would be stolen from a patient and sold to another who would fatally overdose on it; imposing a duty would effectively prohibit methadone clinics from disbursing take-home medication; and imposing a duty would harm the public interest inasmuch as incapacitated drug addicts would be unable to take medication at home. Id. at 904. The McCandless Court held that the trial court did not err in finding no duty on the part of the methadone clinic.
We conclude that the foregoing precedents are dispositive of the instant case. DiMarco and Emerich involved identifiable and easily foreseeable third parties. In Hospodar, Witthoeft, Heil, Crosby, and McCandless, the injured party was not identifiable or foreseeable prior to the accident. Rather, the doctor’s duty in those cases, if a duty was held to exist, would have been to a segment of the general public. In Hospodar, this Court found the doctor not to be liable to car accident victims even though he was aware of his patient’s prior black outs behind the wheel of a car. Instantly, Appellant’s allegations establish only that the RHJ Parties were aware of Ramsay’s prior ingestion of marijuana and non-prescription anxiety medications during the course of his methadone treatment. There is no allegation that the RHJ Parties knew Appellant drove intoxicated as a result of his ingestion of other substances along with his prescription methadone. Thus, the foreseeability of the tragedy in the instant case was even less than that in Hospodar. Given this Court’s repeated refusal to impose a duty in the cases referenced above, all of which are binding on this panel, we cannot conclude the RHJ Parties owed any duty to the Decedent in the instant case.
Finally, given the lack of foreseeability of the victim, and the strong public interest in the rehabilitation of users of illicit drugs, we do not believe the public interest is served by imposing a duty on the RHJ Parties in this case. For all the foregoing reasons, we reject Appellant’s first argument. The trial court did not err in declining to impose a duty on the RHJ Parties in this case.