BY Susan M. Brazas for Lawyers.com
We've seen it happen all over the country: Mom-and-pop pharmacies disappearing one by one. In their place there are mega-pharmacies across the street from one another. Now, Walgreens has been found guilty of the wrongful death of a 46-year-old woman fighting breast cancer. Her prescription from Walgreens was ten times the strength it was supposed to be.
Walgreens Guilty Verdict Upheld
A jury found Walgreens guilty of the wrongful death of a 46-year old Florida woman due to a massive overdose of the prescription Walgreens gave to her.
In hopes of helping her beat breast cancer, Beth Hippely's physician prescribed the blood thinner Warfarin in 2002.But a teenage pharmacy technician at Walgreens gave her 10 times the amount her physician had ordered, 10 milligrams instead of 1 milligram. As a result, just 3 weeks later, the woman had a stroke and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and paralysis. She died several years later.
Walgreens appealed the jury's verdict, but Florida's Second District Court of Appeals agreed with the jury, and kept in place the jury's verdict of $33.3 million against Walgreens. This amount went to the woman's family to compensate for her injuries, death, disability and medical treatment.
That lawsuit was one of many filed against Walgreens in the past several years for wrongful death from prescription mistakes. A jury awarded $31 million to the family of a 79-year old man who had kidney failure and went on dialysis after a Walgreens pharmacy gave him medicine that wasn't the gout medicine his doctor prescribed.
A high school wrestling coach died after not receiving counseling about drug interactions, and was awarded a $6 million verdict. A Florida man died of a Methadone overdose after he was given incorrect dosage instructions.
Expanding Legal Responsibility
Even though pharmacies and pharmaceutical drugs are heavily regulated, errors can occur, and the results can be tragic. To save costs, "script mills" often employ pharmacy technicians who work for lower pay, and who don't have the rigorous training required of registered pharmacists. They are often teenagers or college students.
Over the past 20 years, the courts have expanded the scope of the legal responsibility of pharmacies, and pharmacists (who are ultimately responsible for the pharmacy technicians), to exercise "reasonable care" in their work. This means they're accountable for their negligence.
Medical Experts Required
It's not enough to show that someone died or was injured after taking medicine filled at a pharmacy. Medical expert testimony, from a doctor, pharmacist, or pharmacologist will be necessary. They will have to explain what error occurred, and how and why that caused the person's death or injury.
The experts will have to educate the jury and the judge, to help them understand the highly technical, scientific terms so they can make an informed and intelligent decision. The pharmacy or pharmacist being sued will then have the chance to have their experts give an explanation in their defense.
They may also show evidence that the person who took the medication was careless or somehow contributed to their own injuries or death. In turn, the patient's or family's attorney can present evidence against that theory, which is known as "contributory negligence."
Errors can happen and not just at major chains, and not every mistake leads to a million-dollar verdict or settlement. Even doctors can make mistakes when they write the prescription.
Knowing your prescription is also your responsibility. If you have any concerns that your prescription is different from what your doctor told you, or need clarification, ask the pharmacist to contact your doctor to make sure it's correct, or call yourself. Read the paper insert in the medication to find out any side effect or reactions with other medications.
Questions for Your Attorney
- My son is paralyzed and I think it was because of a prescription he took. Can I sue the pharmacy even though it was 2 or 3 years ago?
- How do I file a report about suspected problems with my pharmacy?
- Where should I report problems with a mail order pharmacy? Where it's located or where I live?