When Are Doctors Responsible for Opioid Overdoses?

By Peter DePaolis

The Opioid Epidemic has called into question the practice of a physician prescribing pain meds for unnecessary situations or failing to follow up with patients while taking these highly addictive and dangerous substances.

One question that has recently come to light is whether a doctor can be held accountable for a patient’s abuse or even their overdose. Could you sue a physician for prescribing too many painkillers and would it fall under malpractice or wrongful death?

In these cases, there is not a clear answer.

Instead, it would come down to the practices of the physician, the patient and how they took their medication, and a few other factors. However, there have been instances where juries are holding doctors accountable for addictions from their prescriptions. One St. Louis jury awarded $17.6 million in damages to a couple that filed a malpractice lawsuit against a physician for prescribing too many opioid medications.

To understand the issue of liability, we must first look at the circumstances that would lead to a lawsuit against a physician for opioid overdoses and when a physician would be accountable for that instance.

Understanding Medical Malpractice for Opioid Overdose Cases in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland

If you have recently lost a loved one to an overdose and you feel that it was due to a physician’s blatant or negligent overprescribing, you may have a case against the physician, the hospital, or the clinic where they work. However, you should always consult a malpractice attorney before assuming you can pursue compensation.

When Opioid Prescriptions Lead to Addiction – Who Is Responsible?

When a physician prescribes an opioid medication, they must have a medical reason for doing so. And other professionals in a similar medical field would have to agree that the prescription of that opioid was a necessary course of treatment.

Even so, a physician could prescribe opioids, with a valid reason for doing so, and still breach their duty of care to the patient, leading to a severe addiction. When addictions go untreated, it is more likely that the patient will continue to abuse and possibly overdose.

In this case, if a patient becomes addicted to opioids, malpractice might apply as long as there is a breach of the standard of care. For example, the physician knew his patient was a recovering drug addict and prescribed the medication anyway. If the physician was aware of the dependency in the past and still prescribes, they could be liable.

If the patient never discloses their past addiction, however, the physician cannot be liable for information that is unknown to them.

When Addiction Occurs Due to Poor Prescribing Habits and Follow-Up

A patient may not have a history of abuse, but after being on painkillers for long enough, they establish one. Painkillers are naturally addictive. And the longer a patient uses them, the harder it is for them to stop. The physician’s job is only to prescribe these medications when necessary, wean their patient off, and if the patient is still in pain, refer them to pain management programs for assistance.

Furthermore, the physician should follow up regularly, see how the patient’s pain is, and monitor their usage of the opioids. When they fail to do so and continually prescribe, they could be at fault for an addiction that develops.

For example, Patient A has surgery that requires Vicodin during recovery. The physician prescribes it and continues to refill that prescription six months later – four months after the surgical follow-up showing the patient recovered fully from their surgery. Now, Patient A has a serious addiction to Vicodin. They cannot function without it, they become violently ill if they miss a dose, and the physician continues to prescribe without any medical necessity for doing so. In this case, malpractice occurred.

When Opioid Addictions Lead to Health Complications (Some of Which Might be Fatal)

Opioid prescriptions do not always lead to overdose, but a patient may still die from their use due to other health problems. For example, a person may have respiratory issues while on pain medication and the physician ignored the patient complaints of weakness, fainting, or dizziness. If that patient suffers respiratory failure or dies from the distress, the physician is liable.

When an Overdose Occurs from Opioid Prescriptions

Opioids naturally slow the body’s respiratory and digestive systems. And when someone takes too much, these necessary organs shut down. If a physician prescribed the medications and they failed to act responsibly by only prescribing safe doses, they could be found liable.

Medical Malpractice Requires a Breach of Care, but What Is It?

The most important factor that dictates whether or not you can hold a physician accountable is the breach of care. A breach in the standard, acceptable level of medical care is not easily defined. Instead, it comes down to multiple factors:

  • Would other physicians have written similar prescriptions and acted similarly in their course of treatment?
  • Did the doctor follow all prescribing guidelines sent by the manufacturer?
  • Did the physician follow all board guidelines when prescribing opioids?
  • Did the doctor follow state and federal guidelines for opioid prescriptions?

If the physician fails to follow any of the above, then they may have committed malpractice. However, if they followed all guidelines and regulations, monitored the patient and followed up, and other physicians would have acted in a similar nature with their course of treatment, it would be hard to seek compensation from a physician for that overdose.

Hire a Malpractice Attorney for Assistance with Your Case

If you suspect that a loved one’s overdose was due to poor management from a physician or a substandard level of care, you may have a case for malpractice.

To explore your options, exercise your rights to compensation, and to advocate for a loved one who no longer can do so for themselves, speak with an attorney that has experience handling malpractice cases involving opioids.

Contact the attorneys at Koonz McKenney Johnson & DePaolis LLP, at one of our three office locations or by sending us a question online.

About the Author
Peter DePaolis joined the firm in 1980 and has since represented a large number of individuals involved in automobile collisions, truck accidents, bus crashes, defective products, and medical malpractice cases. A significant portion of Mr. DePaolis’ practice is devoted to working on behalf of people suffering from asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related cancers. He has led his firm’s fight against the asbestos industry and has recovered over $30 million in damages for asbestos victims and their families.