Personal Liability Issues for Doctors in the Summer

May 26, 2015

Summer is officially upon us and with it comes increased personal liability and safety issues doctors and their families need to consider carefully.

As we return to work this week we enter the so-called "100 Deadliest Days," the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day that unfortunately brings heightened numbers of teen deaths, injury, and increased family and parental liability. This issue potentially affects every family regardless of where you live or how "good" or "smart" you think your kids are. The fact is mistakes happen and when you combine groups of children with large amounts of free time and gaps in supervision, the risk of a mistake in judgment or serious accident increases exponentially, as does the chance of a financially devastating civil lawsuit.

Know your risk

Because physicians are attractive litigation targets for many issues (due to their perceived wealth) they must understand that their liability concerns and defensive planning need to go substantially beyond their medical practice. Parents are generally responsible for the intentional and negligent acts of their children through the age of 18, although a few states extend that liability even further through "age of majority" laws that extend parental liability beyond age 18.

In some cases this liability may be civil, where the risk is financial (and which should also be considered in your "asset protection risk factor" analysis). One common example I've faced with many clients who are parents is being sued for an accident caused by a teen driver that involved extensive property damage, death, or serious injuries to others.

In other cases the liability may also be criminal, for both affirmative actions on your part including those that contributed to the delinquency of a minor and in other cases for your negligence, failure to act, or failure to properly supervise. Just a few of the many examples I've seen include: failing to adequately secure firearms (many states have laws regarding this), or even more commonly, your kids and their friends (who you are also responsible for if they are on your property or in your care, whether you actually knew about their actions) having access to your liquor and prescription drugs that in turn lead to other harm.

Be defensively prepared

For most physicians this is a combination of three areas: rules and supervision, proactive asset protection planning, and high levels of personal liability insurance. Just as in your medical practice, your household needs some basic rules and someone that actually enforces them as the first line of defense. As many children will have greater amounts of unsupervised time during the summer it's important that you understand both your liability and the rules about when and if children of different ages can even be left alone - which is actually governed by very specific laws that vary from state to state, and may be part of determining if your supervision or lack thereof was negligent or not.

I have routinely received calls in the fall from successful individuals, including doctors, looking for help in protecting their hard-earned assets that were jeopardized through actions taken by themselves or their children over the summer. Unfortunately this is the No. 1, most-common mistake doctors make with asset protection planning - failing to act before a problem occurs. In most cases competent counsel could have helped manage and reduce the risk by suggesting adequate amounts (seven figures) of the right kinds of insurance coverage, and putting the right legal tools in place to properly segregate assets and help protect them from your unrelated personal and professional risks.

Timing is always key and even if you find a lawyer desperate enough to help you plan against an existing and specific liability, the chances of that planning actually working are very low. Such 11th-hour plays also carry significant additional risk in the form of a "fraudulent conveyance" claim by a creditor or plaintiff that may result in both the assets being lost and additional penalties or punitive actions by the courts. As in medicine, the best legal strategies are preventative, not heroic and remedial.