Overdose and Death

Typically when we discuss drug overdoses, people think of users of illicit substances who are heavily addicted to street drugs like heroin or cocaine. But increasingly, it is prescription drug medications that are the culprit, and not all cases involve addiction or even abuse.

Although the federal government doesn’t tally death rates for every single drug, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does track information on many of the most commonly used drugs. From 2001 to 2014, the agency reported the percentage of prescription drug overdose deaths tripled.

The Boston wrongful death lawyers at The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman know that in a fair number of cases, survivors and loved ones of prescription drug overdose may have a potential cause of action against those involved in prescribing and dispensing the drug.

It will depend on the situation, but even when an individual misuses or abuses the drug with disastrous results, there may be grounds for legal action if the physician knew or should have known the dangerous drug was being abused and failed to take reasonable action to prevent harm.

CDC: Drug Overdose “Epidemic”

One study released by the Trust for America’s Health called, “ The Facts Hurt: A State-by-State Injury Prevention Policy Report,” indicates drug overdose deaths in 2015 surpassed all others to become the No. 1 cause of death from injury in the U.S., claiming some 44,000 lives annually. Of those, more than half – or 23,000 – are attributed to prescription drugs. That’s more than double the number of annual drunk driver deaths, which is around 10,000.

The CDC reports that from 1999 to 2013, the amount of prescription painkillers prescribed and sold in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled – despite the fact that there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain Americans report. Drug misuse and abuse accounts for 2.5 million emergency department visits each year. Of those, 1.4 million involve prescription drugs.

Of course, doctors may not always know and can’t always anticipate when a patient is misusing or abusing a drug. However, there are many examples of medications – particularly powerful painkillers, but also anti-anxiety and insomnia medications – that have high potential for abuse and addiction. Blatantly ignoring these risks is failure to use appropriate care, which is how medical malpractice is defined.

Massachusetts Drug Overdose Problem

In Massachusetts, the injury-related death rate is 42.9 per 100,000 population. That’s actually one of the lowest rates in the country, which has a national rate of 58.4 per 100,000.

However, when it comes to prescription drug deaths, we have a serious problem.

Over the last dozen years, drug overdoses in Massachusetts have become the No. 1 cause of death by injury. The Commonwealth ranked 21st in the nation for drug overdose deaths, with a rate of 13.8 per 100,000 people.

In order to help curb this issue, state legislators did establish a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and we’re one of only half the states so far to do so. This mandatory program is used to red-flag certain doctors for overprescribing and certain patients for doctor-shopping. The software is used by both health care providers and law enforcement agencies.

How Overdoses Happen

Medication overdoses can and do occur as a result of misuse and abuse of drugs. But they can also result from:

  • Incorrect prescription. Doctors or nurse practitioners may write a prescription for the wrong drug entirely, or more commonly, err on the dosage or frequency indicators.
  • Pharmacy mistake. Pharmacists owe a duty to use great caution in filling medications and ensuring the amount and dosage is correct and the medication is properly labeled.
  • Incorrect administration. This is more likely to occur in a hospital, where nurses or doctors are directly administering the drug via IV. In some cases, charts may be mixed or improper instructions are given or someone simply makes a basic mistake.
Liability for Drug Overdose and Death

In years past, deaths and injuries stemming from drug overdoses were largely viewed as the fault of the user. That position has shifted as the public has come to see addiction for what it is: A disease.

Prescription drug overdose can result in:

  • Brain damage
  • Damage to internal organs
  • Coma
  • Death

These outcomes are usually avoidable, and physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and nurses can be held liable for negligent or reckless prescription or administration of drugs resulting in overdose or death.

Contact the Boston personal injury lawyers at The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman by calling (617) 367-2900.

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