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Who is to Blame Legally for the Opioid Crisis?

  • By:Hershey Law

Pain medication relief is prescribed throughout the world after surgeries, for chronic conditions such as cancer, and in terminal illnesses. But the physician follow-up is often what makes the difference between these prescription medications being used as directed or turning into dangerous addictions for the user.

Opioids like Oxycontin and Vicodin, two of the most commonly prescribed narcotics for pain relief, are made from opium, naturally found in heroin. Of course, if your insurance doesn’t cover those synthetic meds, there are always morphine and codeine. Others include Percocet, methadone, Dilaudid, and more. The list goes on and on – and so do the opportunities to become addicted to pain medications.

Many people blame the addict when drug abuse becomes an issue, but in the case of prescription medications, these deadly addictions often start with innocent intentions. Instead of an illicit street deal where the buyer knows what they are doing is wrong, the patient starts out with a problem, turns to their doctor for the solution, and trusts that what they are being given is safe.

But, as in everything in life, patients slip through the cracks, refills are written without full analysis of the patient’s condition, and life goes on as the user becomes more and more addicted. The opioid crisis perpetuates its continual cycle, and who is to blame when the patient’s addiction causes side effects that are worse than the original condition or becomes deadly?

This is when the question of medical malpractice comes in to play in the legal battlefield.

Prescription Pain Killers by the Numbers

Before delving in to the legalities, it’s important to get a grasp of the significance of prescription and illicit drug use in the United States. 

In a country with an estimated population of 327 million people, nearly a quarter of them – 54 million people 12 and over – have used prescription drugs for something other than medical use at some time in their lives. Most often, these were in the form of painkillers, but also included tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives.

Prescription drug use is more common than the combined use of cocaine, heroin, and meth, and is second only to marijuana. Drugs like Adderall and benzodiazepines have increased in use by over 60% in the past decade, while hospital visits for Adderall tripled and drug overdoses on benzodiazepines quadrupled.

Where are people getting all of these medications to misuse? Even though prescription drug monitoring programs are used by all 50 states in the US to track each prescription, it’s not a perfect system. Physicians don’t always drug test their patients to ensure they are using their medications and not selling them, and opioids and other prescriptions meds sell quite well on the street.

In fact, although the United States only comprises approximately 5% of the world’s population, the country as a whole is responsible for almost 80% of the entire global opioid drug prescription. And of these numbers, these prescription opioids account for 40% of the overdose deaths due to opioids in the country – this is almost 50 people every day dying from a prescription medication.

Who is responsible for this massive epidemic? Well, according to the State of Massachusetts, at least one family is to blame.

The Sackler Family and Their Role in the Opioid Epidemic

The State of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit against members of the Sackler family, holders of Purdue Pharma, saying that they knowingly withheld the dangers of their addictive painkillers from those using and prescribing them. Purdue Pharma manufactures drugs like oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, and codeine.

According to the State of Massachusetts in its allegations, eight Sackler family members who were on the board or executives, and other directors and officers, were paid billions of dollars to target populations that were deemed “vulnerable,” like the elderly and veterans. 

Sales reps of Purdue regularly visited doctors in Massachusetts face-to-face more than 150,000 times to attempt to convince prescribers to use their medications, and Purdue published their own materials in which the addictiveness of their drugs was minimized.

Revenue reports show that Oxycontin alone has generated over $35 billion in revenue for Purdue Pharma. The company itself and three executives already pled guilty in 2007 to criminal charges of misleading users, doctors, and even regulators about the addictive properties of the drug, and now the State of Massachusetts has charged the Sacklers themselves with profiting from harming and killing users of the company’s prescription opioids.

But What About the Doctors That Prescribe the Drug?

While some states and other plaintiffs are pursuing the Sacklers and the manufacturers of the opioids, individuals and their families want the doctors who prescribed the medication to be held accountable for their medical malpractice. 

It’s understandable, but not always possible. For medical malpractice to have occurred in the case of prescription opioid addiction injuries or deaths, certain factors must be met.

Medical malpractice may consist of a wide variety of decisions or failures to act by the physician or other healthcare provider, but the main deciding factor of whether the consequence was accidental or malpractice comes down to the issue of negligence. Without negligence involved, there is no case.

Medical negligence, by definition, occurs when a medical professional fails to act or acts in a manner that strays from the generally accepted standard of care. 

Certain considerations are taken into account, such as the resources that were available to the provider at the time and the average skill of providers in that specialty when it comes to the condition in question. For instance, a nephrologist might not necessarily be able to have foreseen a heart attack approaching with certain signs, but a cardiologist may have been expected to with those same signs.

Regarding opioid addiction harm or death, the accuser must be able to prove that their prescribing physician was guilty of negligence.

To do this, a knowledgeable personal injury attorney, like those at Hershey Law, will begin by obtaining the patient’s medical records regarding the treatment. They will likely hire a medical expert to review those records, analyze them and the level of care provided, and form an opinion on the doctor’s potential negligence. 

It’s not always easy to prove unless the negligence was obvious, but a qualified medical expert in the same specialty, or a similar one, as the physician in question knows what is expected in a regularly accepted standard of medical care. They can then testify as to the duty of care that would have been expected versus what was actually obtained by the patient during their treatment.

Beyond Negligence: Was the Problem Caused by an Over-prescription?

There are many other factors that come into play during a drug overdose or severe effects caused by a prescription opioid addiction. Your medical history will be in the spotlight during this lawsuit, as your attorney attempts to prove negligence and the defendant’s attorney attempts to discredit you.

During this time, your past medical problems, treatment, comprehensive diagnoses, and subjective complaints will be analyzed. Your doctor’s medical findings as discussed in their notes and referrals will be looked at, too. It will be harder to prove the negligence of one doctor, for instance, if you have a history of chronic prescription drug use from other physicians.

Your forthcoming information is part of this, as well. If you had an addiction to other prescription or illicit drugs and did not share this with your physician, it will be harder to prove negligence.

Medical malpractice from an overprescribed controlled medication requires analysis of the doctor’s degree and experience in treating your condition. It also will include a thorough medical analysis of the generally accepted way to treat your diagnosis, the recommended dosage and length of use, and your dosage history and duration.

If your physician has known that you have been on a controlled prescription medication for longer than the recommended duration of use and has not attempted to wean you off of it, transfer you to a different, less dangerous and addictive drug, or refer you to a pain management doctor or other specialist, they could be deemed negligent in over-prescribing you an opioid drug.

Has Prescription Opioid Abuse Affected You?

More than 50 people die every day from a prescription opioid drug overdose, but even more are severely damaged from the side effects of chronic use and abuse. The damage these drugs can do go well beyond the conditions they may have originally been prescribed to treat.

If you or a loved one became a statistic of this silent, deadly drug, you need someone to help you determine your rights and your next course of action. Filing a medical malpractice claim may be your best way to get the medical care you need for the damages done to you.

When you are ready to speak to an expert about your situation, contact Hershey Law for your free consultation. At Hershey Law, we care about you as a person, not a statistic.

Posted in: Personal Injury, Product Liability