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Opioid Addiction And Death: Courts And States Get Tough With Doctors And Health Care Providers

When it comes to finding someone society can blame for increasing painkiller addictions and overdose-related deaths, there's plenty of liability to go around. A study in 2012 found that 60% of all opiate-caused deaths occurred among people who were prescribed the painkillers according to approved medical standards and used their pills exactly as directed. The remaining 40% of deaths occurred among patients who doctor-shopped for multiple prescriptions or bought their pills on the street.

Because of what appears to be an inherent fatal flaw in opioid painkillers—namely their huge potential for both deadly addiction and fatal adverse reactions—many lawsuits have been filed for wrongful death and medical malpractice damages at every level of the pill pipeline.

States and individuals are getting fed up with the problems and costs of addiction, and so are juries. Here are some recent developments in medical malpractice cases regarding opioid overdose.

West Virginia allows addicts to sue negligent "pill mill" doctors

In many states there is a legal term known as comparative negligence which may limit an addict's ability to sue a doctor for prescribing addictive substances. Comparative negligence is the term for any part the addict may have played in his or her own opiate-fueled loss of health, job and security.

In states like Virginia, addicts may find it difficult to win awards against negligent pill-dispensing doctors because courts must consider whether or not the addict added to their own misery by not taking pills correctly or by buying black market drugs. If the plaintiff (addict) in a lawsuit is found to also be at fault for their painkiller habit, the defendant (pill-mill doctor) may be absolved of all liability on the basis of the addict's comparative negligence.

The courts right next door in West Virginia have taken the opposite tack. The Appalachian region has one of the worst addiction rates in the nation, which may be why the West Virginia Supreme Court recently ruled that people who have been negligently supplied narcotic and addictive pills can sue the doctors who prescribed them, even if the plaintiffs are found partially responsible for their own conditions. You can read the full ruling here.

Alabama jury returns with record award for opioid allergy death

Sometimes the patient bears no responsibility for their own death by painkiller but is at the mercy of a medical professional's judgment. A jury in Alabama sent a message that health care providers don't get any immunity from the consequences of dispensing deadly doses. A jury recently awarded a family $20 million for the loss of a family member who was admitted to a rehab facility and given a debilitating dose of narcotic painkillers that caused her eventual death. It's the largest award ever seen in the county's courts.

The rehab center's attorneys tried to have the case dismissed by claiming there was no way to know how much of any drug was given to the woman. The ploy did not work to their advantage. Since the woman was partially revived using anti-OD medicine Narcan, and since her blood tested for opiates hours after she was brought to the ER from the rehab facility, medical experts concluded there was no doubt the woman was given the fatal dose of opiates by staff at the rehab center.

Because the facility was adequately informed of the woman's allergy to opiates and still administered the drug carelessly, the jury found for the family and let the rehab facility know just how wrong they believe the rehab's actions were. 

You may wonder if pharmaceutical companies can be sued for selling the highly addictive and dangerous drugs from which they profit. Kentucky sued Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the makers of OxyContin, and received a settlement from the company. Recently a court ordered that records from the lawsuit be unsealed and opened up to the public, which may spur more lawsuits against the company in other states.

If you or a loved one is suffering from painkiller addiction or has been harmed or killed by painkillers, consult with a medical malpractice attorney like Todd East Attorney at Law to discover ways you may be entitled to compensation for doctor or health-care-provider negligence.