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Risk Management Advice to Physicians and their Insurers:
Don't Borrow Trouble


By Joe Horn

Since retiring and leaving Law Enforcement, I have been active in Risk Management consulting, a field that has grown rapidly throughout every industry over the past 20 years. Some of the companies I have consulted to for risk management include IBM, Gates Lear jet, National Semiconductor, and Pinkerton International Protection Services.

One of the best games in town is litigation, and litigating against physicians is even more popular than suing gun manufacturers. Physicians and their malpractice insurance carriers are well aware that litigators are constantly looking for new opportunities to sue. Let's talk about one of those new areas of exposure.

Nowadays, many physicians and other health care providers are engaging in the very risky, well intentioned, but naive and politically inspired business of asking their patients about ownership, maintenance and storage of firearms in the home. Some could argue that this is a "boundary violation," and it probably is, but there is another very valid reason why these professionals should NOT engage in this practice -- MASSIVE LIABILITY.

Physicians are licensed and certified in the practice of medicine, the treatment of illnesses and injuries, and in preventative activities. They may advise or answer questions about those issues. However, when physicians give advice about firearms safety in the home, without certification in that field, and without physically INSPECTING that particular home and those particular firearms, they are functioning outside the practice of medicine. Furthermore, if they fail to review the gamut of safety issues in the home, such as those relating to electricity, drains, disposals, compactors, garage doors, driveway safety, pool safety, pool fence codes and special locks for pool gates, auto safety, gas, broken glass, stored cleaning chemicals, buckets, toilets, sharp objects, garden tools, home tools, power tools, lawnmowers, lawn chemicals, scissors, needles, forks, knives, and on and on, well, you get the drift. A litigator could easily accuse that physician of being NEGLIGENT for not covering whichever one of those things that ultimately led to the death or injury of a child or any one in the family or even a visitor to the patient's home.

To engage in Home Safety Counseling without certification, license or formal training in Risk Management and to concentrate on one small politically correct area, i.e., firearms to the neglect of ALL of the other safety issues in the modern home, is to invite a lawsuit because the safety counselor Knew, Could have known or SHOULD have known that there were other dangers to the occupants of that house more immediate than firearms. Things like swimming pools, buckets of water, and chemicals in homes are involved in the death or injury of many more children than accidental firearms discharge [ Source: CDC.] Firearms are a statistically small, nearly negligible fraction of the items involved in home injuries. Physicians SHOULD know that. So, why all of a sudden do some physicians consider themselves to be firearms safety experts? Where is their concern for all the other safety issues that they DON'T cover with their patients?

Once physicians start down this path of home safety counseling, they are completely on their own. A review of their medical malpractice insurance will reveal that if they engage in an activity for which they are not certified, the carrier will not cover them if (or when) they get sued.

Consider a physician asking the following questions of his or her malpractice insurance carrier:

  1. One of my patients is suing me for NOT warning them that furniture polish was poisonous and their child drank it and died. I only warned them about firearms, drugs and alcohol. Am I covered for counseling patients about firearms safety while not mentioning and giving preventative advice about all the other dangers in the home, and doing so without formal training or certification in any aspect of home safety risk management? You know their answer.

  2. How much training and certification do I need to become a Home Safety Expert Doctor? They will tell you that you are either a pediatrician or you are the National Safety Council. But, you don't have certification to do the National Safety Council's job for them.

Homeowners and parents are civilly or criminally responsible for the safety or lack thereof in their homes. My advice to physicians is to not borrow trouble by presuming to be able to dispense safety advice outside your area of expertise: the practice of medicine. Your insurance carrier will love you if you simply treat injuries and illnesses, dispense advice on how to care for sick or injured persons, manage sanitation problems and try to prevent disease, but stay out of the Risk Management business unless you are trained and certified to do it.

(c) 2000

Joe Horn
6th Mesa Risk Management,
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Retired


Joe Horn is a member of Second Amendment Police Department, who is now collaborating and strategizing from time to time with Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws.

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