First of all, a doctor or physician must owe a duty to their patient before they can be held liable for giving medical treatment while off-duty.  In the U.S., a doctor has no affirmative duty to provide medical assistance to injured persons if they have not established a special relationship with the individual.

So, for example, if a doctor is off-duty having a meal in a restaurant and a person is injured, they do not actually have a duty to assist that person.  If the doctor continues eating their meal, the injured person does not have a medical malpractice claim against the doctor, even if they are harmed.  This is because no special relationship has formed yet between the injured person and the doctor. 

On the other hand, suppose that the off-duty doctor willingly and knowingly volunteers to assist the injured person.  At this point a doctor-patient relationship has been formed.  The doctor may then become liable if their medical assistance further injures the patient (for example, if they were negligent during treatment).  Or, they may become liable if they volunteer assistance and then abandon the treatment later. 

How is a Doctor’s Off-Duty Medical Treatment Evaluated?

Once the off-duty doctor has formed a doctor-patient relationship with an injured person, they owe them a certain duty of care in the treatment that they render.  Since an off-duty doctor is not providing the medical treatment in a hospital setting, it can be difficult to determine how their medical treatment should be legally evaluated. 

In general, an off-duty doctor is expected to render the same degree of care, skill, and diligence as is reasonably expected of a competent physician under similar circumstances.  “Similar circumstances” may include:

  • The area of medicine that the doctor practices in, as well as their degree of certification/specialty
  • The accepted or customary practices of other doctors in the same geographic area (the “locality rule”)
  • The types and quality of medical equipment and facilities that are available in the immediate area

Thus, a general physician cannot be held to the same standards of care as a specialist, such as a brain surgeon or a heart specialist.  However, they may become liable if they volunteer to perform treatment that they have not been properly trained for.

Every emergency situation is different, and the doctor may not have all of the necessary equipment or assistance available in an off-duty setting such as a restaurant. Thus, expert testimony may be required to establish the liability of a doctor who volunteers assistance while they are off-duty. 

Can a Hospital be Liable for the actions of an Off-duty Doctor or Physician?

This depends- in order to hospital liable for the actions of an off-duty doctor, vicarious liability rules must apply.  The hospital must have directed and controlled the doctor’s off-duty actions in order to be held liable.  An off-duty doctor is usually acting on their own independent and voluntary initiative.  Therefore it is rare for a hospital to be liable for medical treatment provided by an off-duty physician.

On the other hand, some doctors are members of private medical practice associations, such as a limited partnership.  In such cases the medical organization may have their own rules that address the actions of off-duty physicians and the subsequent liability of the organization as a whole. 

Finally, the doctor might possibly be liable for the actions of an assistant whom they instructed to participate in the off-duty treatment.

Do I need a Lawyer for Injuries Caused by the Treatment of an Off-Duty Doctor?

If you have been injured as a result of medical treatment from a doctor who was not on-duty, it is possible that you have a legal claim against them.  You may wish to contact a personal injury lawyer for advice regarding your situation.  Your attorney can help you gather the necessary evidence to prove your claim in court.