Does determining serum alcohol concentrations in emergency department patients influence physicians' civil suit liability?
Emergency physicians may incur liability when impaired patients who have been treated and released are subsequently involved in traffic crashes. We surveyed attorneys to assess their perception of how serum alcohol determinations might influence their liability in civil suits. Overall, 63.9% of the attorneys surveyed would advise patients that they received potentially negligent care if they were impaired following treatment in the emergency department and were involved in a traffic crashes. Perceived liability was altered by physician behavior as follows: 43.1% of attorneys would advise clients that they received potentially negligent care when impairment was documented by a test for serum alcohol concentration and no advice was given regarding drunk driving, and 17.3% of attorneys would give similar advice when impairment was not documented by a test for serum alcohol concentration and no advice was given regarding drunk driving. In contrast, only 3.5% of attorneys would suggest possible negligence when impairment was documented by a test for serum alcohol concentration and with advice subsequently given not to drive. The coupling of diagnosing impairment by the serum alcohol concentration and driving advice is medically sensible and might result in minimal civil liability.
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