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Opioids: A Medical Malpractice Epidemic?


In June of 2016, a jury in St. Louis, Missouri sent a resounding message to the medical and pharmaceutical community when it awarded Brian Koon and his estranged wife, Michelle Koon, 1.4 million and 1.2 million in damages, respectively, and 15 million in punitive damages, due to Mr. Koon’s opioid addiction. The jury found that the defendant, Dr. Henry Walden, had over-prescribed opioid pain medication to the plaintiff Brian Koon, leading to his addiction and the break-down of his marriage. Evidence was presented at trial which showed that during Koon’s four years of treatment with Dr. Walden (2008-2012), he was prescribed 37,000 narcotic pain pills, and his daily dosage far exceeded the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended dosage.

Obviously, the Koon case is an egregious example. But over-prescribing of opioids is not uncommon, and combined with a lack of patient monitoring and follow-up, it is one of the ways in which thousands of people get addicted to opioids. We tend to think of medical malpractice lawsuits as causes of action involving surgical mistakes or misdiagnoses. But a doctor is negligent if he/she does not exercise reasonable care in prescribing an opioid or narcotic pain medication; reasonable care includes looking at a patient’s history of addiction or dependency, and ensuring that the patient uses the pain medication as intended—i.e. the correct dose and for the correct reason and condition. If a doctor’s negligence results in a patient becoming addicted to the pain medication, then the patient may have a medical malpractice claim.

Medication-related claims are the fourth most common medical malpractice causes of action. In 31% of these claims, inadequate patient monitoring was alleged. In fact, several major studies have shown that prescription computation is a leading cause of medication errors, and that most errors occur in follow-up visits. In other words, prescriptions for opioid and narcotic pain medications are being renewed for patients without re-evaluating the patient and the dose, and without continued monitoring of the patient.


We are all aware of the opioid epidemic; the crisis touches all people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all ethnicities, and all professions. In October of 2017, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a National Public Health emergency, but stopped short of labeling it a National Emergency which would have allowed immediate additional funding and resources (similar to disaster relief or funding for national infectious disease epidemics). Nationwide, deaths related to drug overdoses are almost equal to deaths due to motor vehicle crashes. Between 1999-2013, drug overdose deaths tripled. Georgia is among the top states in the country for prescription opioid overdose deaths according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. In 2014 in Fulton County, there were 11.7 opioid-related unintentional drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents compared to the national rate of 5.0 per 100,000 residents. Without significant intervention and change, opioids are forecast to kill a half million Americans over the next decade.


On October 23, 2017, Fulton County filed a lawsuit against more than two dozen drug manufacturers, distributors, and doctors, accusing them of causing an ongoing opioid crisis in the county. While the lawsuit is the first of its kind in Georgia, it joins over 100 other such lawsuits nationwide. These lawsuits seek to impose liability at all levels for the approximately 91 people who die everyday in this country from opioid overdoses (based on 2015 CDC statistics). The lawsuits also seek the money and resources necessary to address the staggering costs of addressing what is truly an epidemic in our midst.


If you or a loved one has suffered due to the negligence of a medical professional, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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