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Commentary: what is a doctor's liability in sleep apnea cases?

Question: A patient who is a commercial truck driver has a long history of snoring and daytime sleepiness. His physical exam was remarkable for obesity, prominent extremities, a large tongue, and a prominent jaw. The treating doctor did not pursue additional work-up or treatment.

One day, the patient fell asleep while driving his truck and hit an on-coming vehicle, resulting in injuries to both patient and the other driver.

In this hypothetical scenario, which of the following statements is best?

A. The doctor may be found negligent for missing the diagnosis of acromegaly and accompanying sleep apnea, and for failing to treat and warn about driving risks.

B. The doctor may be liable to both his patient and the other injured driver.

C. The patient may be terminated from his job as a commercial truck driver, because he poses a danger to himself and the public.

D. Both A and B are correct.

E. All are correct.

Answer: D. Sleep apnea, an underdiagnosed and undertreated disabling condition, places the patient at substantial risk for injuries, chronic hypoxemia, and respiratory arrest. Excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue may prove hazardous, particularly in those whose undivided attention is a requirement of their jobs, such as with truck drivers.

Diagnosis is established with a formal sleep study (polysomnography), and treatment with a continuous positive airway pressure device is usually effective. In severe or recalcitrant cases, surgical intervention (that is, uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) may be needed.

In a recent study, Dr. Peter F. Svider of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Newark, and his colleagues analyzed 54 litigated sleep apnea cases, of which 33 (61%) were resolved in favor of the defendants (Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2013 Dec;149[6]:947-53). Most of the cases (47) stemmed from patients who underwent surgery with perioperative complications, including death. Inadequate informed consent and monitoring, as well as inappropriate medications, were other findings.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a well-recognized complication of acromegaly with its bony and soft-tissue hypertrophy. The hypothetical situation described above is substantially modified from an actual case in which a 39-year-old man with acromegaly and sleep apnea died from cardiorespiratory arrest (Cornett v. W.O. Moss Regional Hospital, 614 So.2d 189 [La. 1993]). He had presented over the course of several years with repeated complaints of daytime sleepiness and sleeping while driving. Falling asleep in the examination room and abnormal blood gases were giveaway signs. Unfortunately, sleep apnea was left untreated.

What about other liabilities for injuries that are proximately caused by a failure to diagnose and treat?

A doctor is usually liable for negligent care only to his or her own patient, because the duty of care grows out of the doctor-patient relationship and is normally owed to the patient and no one else. However, in very limited circumstances, the duty may extend to other individuals who are family members or even total strangers.

Sleep apnea, by virtue of its sleep disturbances and resulting daytime sleepiness, poses a foreseeable risk of harm. Nonpatient third parties have successfully sued doctors for driving injuries arising out of the failure to diagnose, treat, or warn in a variety of medical conditions.

One interesting case involved an anesthesiologist who suffered from sleep apnea and who was snoring and sleeping during surgery. The hospital terminated his contract, and the anesthesiologist filed suit claiming disability discrimination. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision in favor of the hospital, finding that the anesthesiologist was fired not because he had a disability, but because he had slept during surgical procedures (Brohm v. JH Properties, 149 F.3d 517 [6th Cir. 1998]).

Distinguishing between discharging someone for unacceptable conduct and discharging someone because of the disability, the court reasoned: "One suffering from chronic sleep deprivation may well be so tired that he cannot stay awake. But such sleep deprivation did not compel Brohm [the anesthesiologist defendant] to administer anesthetics during surgical procedures when he knew he was tired."

Dr. Tan is emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii, and currently directs the St. Francis International Center for Healthcare Ethics in Honolulu. This article is meant to he educational and does not constitute medical, ethical, or legal advice. Some of Dr. Tan's articles are adapted from his 2006 hook, "Medical Malpractice: Understanding the Law, Managing the Risk, " and his 2012 Halshury treatise, "Medical Negligence and Professional Misconduct." For more information, readers can contact the author at Read more commentaries at

Caption: DR. TAN


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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Tan, S.Y.
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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