Duty to Third Parties: Focus on Foreseeability

Spring 2021

The Robins Kaplan Justice Report

Introduction

Foreseeability is the foundation of duty in many states, and Minnesota is no different. With a series of cases starting in 2017, the Minnesota Supreme Court has made a point to reaffirm this long-standing principal. Minnesota common law principles are clear: Defendants may owe a duty of care to third parties based on the foreseeability of the third party’s harm. This is true regardless of whether the tortfeasor had a direct relationship with the injured plaintiff.  Over the last few years, Robins Kaplan has helped secure victories on behalf of clients and amicus parties in cases concluding that defendants may owe a duty to third parties based on a foreseeability analysis. 

Warren v. Dinter, 926 N.W.2d 370 (Minn. 2019)

Warren has appeared on the pages of the Robins Kaplan Justice Report before. The facts in Warren are tragic. Susan Warren sought treatment from a nurse practitioner in a clinic for various symptoms. The nurse practitioner called the local hospital to seek Ms. Warren’s admission and spoke with Dr. Richard Dinter. Dr. Dinter denied Ms. Warren’s admission, and three days later she was found dead due to sepsis caused by an untreated staph infection. The district court granted summary judgment against the plaintiff, which the court of appeals affirmed. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, reversed the dismissal and found that Minnesota’s well-established standard for whether the doctor owed Ms. Warren a duty was premised on foreseeability, which should be tried to the jury. Our team at Robins Kaplan, including Jason DePauw, served as counsel for amicus participant Minnesota Association for Justice. With our support, the courthouse doors remain open to many other patients who have been harmed or killed by medical negligence, even if they didn’t have direct contact with the negligent provider.

Smits v. Park Nicollet, 955 N.W.2d 671 (Minn. Ct. App. 2021)

Robins Kaplan is honored to represent the Trustee in this case. Smits v. Park Nicollet involves the tragic deaths of five people due to Park Nicollet’s alleged medical malpractice in providing mental health treatment to a patient, Brian Short. Mr. Short sought mental health treatment from several providers at Park Nicollet, who diagnosed and treated him with “major depression, single episode, severe, without psychosis, as well as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.” Less than three months after his first appointment, Mr. Short was found dead in his home, having fatally shot his wife, three teenaged children, and himself.

The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s case, finding no duty to Mr. Short’s family members as a matter of law. In a precedential opinion, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that Park Nicollet could have owed a duty to Mr. Short’s family members under “settled common-law principle” of foreseeability of harm. The question of whether the risk of harm to the Short family was foreseeable has been sent back to the district court for the jury to decide.

McDougall v. CRC Industries, Inc., 2021 WL 810635 (JRT/LIB) (D. Minn. Mar. 3, 2021)

Chairez v. AW Distributing, Inc. et al., Case No. 20‐CV‐1473 (NEB/TNL) (D. Minn. Apr. 23, 2021)

These separate cases involve the tragic death of one woman and the serious injuries to a mother and daughter who were struck by drivers who were high on keyboard dusting sprays. Robins Kaplan proudly represents the deceased woman’s surviving husband in his role as wrongful death trustee in the McDougall matter and the two seriously injured women in the Chairez matter. The keyboard dusting spray manufacturers — like Dr. Dinter and Park Nicollet before them — argued that the cases should be dismissed because Cynthia McDougall and the Chairezes were third parties to whom they could not owe a duty as a matter of law. But Chief Judge John Tunheim and Judge Nancy Brasel concluded in their respective orders that product makers such as the keyboard dusting spray manufacturers may owe a duty to protect those who might be injured by the foreseeable harm caused by foreseeable use or misuse of the product — including innocent bystanders such as Cynthia McDougall and the Chairezes.

In both cases, the plaintiffs adequately alleged that the keyboard dusting spray manufacturers knew or should have known that people inhaled their keyboard dusting sprays to get high. They also allegedly knew or should have known that people operated motor vehicles while high on keyboard dusting sprays and could subsequently lose control of their vehicles and crash into innocent bystanders — such as Cynthia McDougall and the Chairezes — often resulting in catastrophic injuries and death. Both courts denied the dusting spray manufacturers’ motions to dismiss based on the foreseeability of harm caused by their products, and these cases are proceeding into discovery.

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