By KIP SULLIVAN (23)
On April 17, the Minnesota Supreme Court published an opinion holding that doctors who deny services to patients may be sued even if they did not have a doctor-patient relationship with the patient. The decision drew expressions of surprise and consternation from observers inside Minnesota. Many malpractice experts had expected the court to conclude that patients cannot sue doctors unless the doctor had actually treated the patient. But in this case, Warren v. Dinter , the court held that a hospitalist  who refuses to admit a patient to the hospital may be sued for causing the death of the patient even though the hospitalist never laid eyes on the patient.
The court sent the case back to the district court for trial.
The defendants listed in this case are both the hospitalist, Dr. Richard Dinter, and the Fairview Range Medical Center in Hibbing, a small town on Minnesota’s Iron Range. The plaintiff is Justin Warren, the son of Susan Warren, a woman who died at the age of 54 one day after being denied admission to the Fairview hospital.
This is an odd case, and a complex case. It raises at least three questions worthy of extensive public debate. In the next section I will recite the basic facts of this story as they were reported by the opinions of the Minnesota Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. In the section after that, I will discuss the three issues.
What we know about the death of the plaintiff’s mother
On the morning of Friday, August 8, 2014, Susan Warren visited Essentia Health Clinic in Hibbing. The clinic is part of the 15-hospital-75-clinic chain called Essentia Health that extends over much of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. The clinic is about a block away from the Fairview Range Medical Center, the only hospital in Hibbing, one of 12 owned by Fairview Health Services a hospital-clinic chain that sprawls over the eastern half of Minnesota.
Warren was suffering from fever, chills and stomach pain. A nurse practitioner at the Essentia clinic, Sherry Simon, drew some blood from Warren and sent it to a lab. That afternoon the lab reported that “Warren had unusually high levels of white blood cells, as well as other abnormalities,” as the court put it (p. 3). (Unless I note otherwise, “the court” refers to the Supreme Court, not the Court of Appeals.) Simon concluded, naturally enough, that Warren had an infection and needed to be hospitalized immediately. However, rather than send Warren straight to the ER of the Fairview Range Medical Center, Simon called the hospital “to seek Warren’s admission.” (p. 3) Simon’s call was routed to Dr. Richard Dinter, one of three hospitalists on call that day.