Doctors Next in Line to Take Blame for Opioid Overuse
Physicians responsible for dishing out too many opioids and the practices they maintain could soon begin to be hit hard in the ongoing battle against the addiction epidemic and prescription drug overuse. Drug manufacturers have been the center of attention in recent months, and those like Actavis LLC, Allergan LLC, and Purdue Pharma Inc., and distributors, like McKesson and Cardinal Health, already are defending numerous lawsuits. They were first in line when fingers started to get pointed, and states, counties, and municipalities brought the majority of the cases, hoping to recover the massive funds dished out to mitigate the crisis. Family members who lost loved ones to addiction have brought their own lawsuits against the companies.
Now, they’re starting to target parties closer to home – the doctors who were willing participants in the addiction game, giving those they cared about far more opioids than needed. Some states, like Oklahoma, and the federal government have also begun holding doctors responsible and prosecuting them criminally.
Last October, The Missouri Court of Appeals, upheld a $16 million judgment against a physician and his employer, St. Louis University, which included $15 million in punitive damages. The case involved patient Brian Koon. The court ruled Koon’s doctor had violated laws regarding standard of care during the time in which he had been treated. The patient was prescribed “colossal” and “astronomical” doses of hydrocodone, OxyContin, and oxycodone, according to the court documents. “This is a doctor problem. The problem starts with the doctor, and we have to do something to end it,” Koon’s attorney stated.
Medical provider lawsuits, rather than those against drug makers, should have been “the first wave of litigation,” claims Alix C. Michel, defense trial lawyer with Michel & Ward in Chattanooga. He added that these cases shouldn’t be too hard to prove once they make it to court since prescribing large amounts of narcotics contributing to overuse is a pretty straightforward breach of standard of care.
Erica Rutner, an attorney with Lash & Goldberg in Miami, agreed and said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if litigation against individual doctors takes off next. Rutner added she expected this to gain traction after the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals indicated back in 2015 that patients addicted to prescription narcotics who engaged in criminal activity related to attaining and abusing them could pursue negligence claims against pharmacies, physicians, and hospitals. However, she said, it will be “virtually impossible” to litigate the claims against doctors as class actions. There are too many unique characteristics to every case to make a group of patients seeking damages from doctors eligible for class status.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter (Republican) said physicians who have demonstrated “reckless disregard for their patients’ health by oversupplying dangerous drugs” should be treated “like drug dealers.” The U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma has already been granted federal grand jury indictments against two doctors allegedly responsible for overuse. Federal indictments against three others were returned a couple of weeks later. Investigations against two others are ongoing. Hunter added he wishes to point out that the problem is a “minority within a minority,” and most doctors are doing what they need to do.