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The US Opioid Epidemic: Can You Sue for a Drug Addiction?

opioid epidemic

The United States is currently amidst a crisis: an opioid crisis.

Most likely you have read about it in the news; you might have even heard President Donald Trump make a speech rallying the country against opioid addictions.

In October 2017, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency, and multiple groups have been working to bring awareness to the public, but also shut down the source for narcotic medications flooding the streets and fueling the epidemic.

One question on many families’ minds is whether they can sue manufacturers or physicians for the addictions caused by these medications. The answer, sadly, is not that simple. Instead, to understand the answer, you must first understand how drug addictions work, medications associated with them, and who would be responsible if negligence occurs.

What is the Opioid Epidemic?

The opioid epidemic is associated with the high number of deaths occurring from opioid-related overdoses. The issue has reached such a massive scale that is risks public safety and health, and it has dampened the United States economy.

The government has been working hard to stop the epidemic, but with overseas manufacturing of knock-off opioid medications and street drugs, the problem has not likely reached its peak.

While some attribute the crisis to physicians over-prescribing medications, others say it is the black market. Regardless, those with strong drug addictions may receive compensation depending on how their addiction or overdose came about.

Statistics to Know

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s WONDER database estimates:

  • 12.5 million misused their prescription opioid medications
  • 33,091 deaths occurred from opiate overdoses
  • 15,281 deaths occurred from overdosing on commonly prescribed opioid medications
  • 2.1 million people misused their opioid prescriptions for the first time
  • $78.5 billion in economic costs were associated with the misuse and deaths from opioids

What Drugs are Commonly Abused in the United States?

Opioids are a class of drugs that come from opium poppy plants. These drugs come in two main categories: illegal narcotics and legally manufactured prescription medications.

Opioid medications are prescribed for various uses and typically are prescribed to treat severe pain from surgery, cancer, and other ailments. Opioids became popular in 1990 for cancer and surgery patients, and since then more physicians have been prescribing them for chronic pain – without considering the safety of doing so.

An illegal opioid commonly abused is heroin, which has recently increased in the United States. Manufacturing has grown so much that it is readily available and often a person could buy it on the street for a third of what they did a few years ago.

Synthetic opioids are another cause of the crisis, including fentanyl. Fentanyl is incredibly cheap compared to other opioids, and the number of fentanyl deaths in the United States has increased dramatically – with it being the leading cause of overdose in the United States. Often fentanyl is used in combination with other opioids, such as heroin, alcohol, and cocaine – making it more lethal.

Where are these Drugs Coming from?

The opioid crisis not solely based on physician negligence. Some sources are from outside of the country, but today we will focus on how the crisis has spread from the United States medical industry.

Prescription drug abuse is one of the leading reasons for the opioid crisis. Most patients who are prescribed these medications do not need them, or they are prescribed for longer than necessary – which encourages abuse. They may share their medicines with friends and family, take more medicine than necessary, or sell their drugs to others.

With physicians readily prescribing these medications, it has flooded the market with opioids – and just about every consumer can say that they have taken an opiate of some type at least once in their adult life.

The federal government has imposed strict limits on prescription medications to stop the domestic distribution of these dangerous drugs. However, pharmaceutical companies can woo doctors and encourage prescribing their medicines despite these regulations.

What is a Drug Addiction and is it a Medical Condition?

To determine if a physician or manufacturer is liable, you must first understand what an addiction is.

A drug addiction is a complex disorder that forces a person to act compulsively despite the adverse consequences of their actions. Physicians agree that a drug addiction is a disease; therefore, it requires professional treatment once it begins.

The Commonality of Pain Medication Addictions

Narcotic pain medications are made from opium, which is highly addictive. The primary sources of opiate addictions in the United States include morphine, codeine, Percocet, Vicodin, and oxycodone.

Studies have shown that when these medications are used correctly, the chances of addiction are low. However, when they are over-prescribed and abused, the chances increase significantly.

Can You Sue a Physician or Drug Company for Your Addiction?

Determining if you have a case against physician comes down to whether it is an issue of malpractice or product liability. Therefore, you should consult with an attorney to see if your case qualifies for either type of suit and if you have sufficient evidence to pursue a claim.

Proving Medical Malpractice

Various actions or inactions cause malpractice by a physician. When it comes to a pain medication addiction, a physician could be liable when they fail to provide the standard care expected when prescribing medications that are addictive.

A Physician’s Duty to Use Care When Prescribing

A physician owes their patient a duty of care when prescribing any medication that might harm them – including addictive narcotics. They must weigh the benefits versus the risks, discuss them with their patient, and monitor their patient to ensure the medication is valid and necessary.

When a physician deviates from their duty of care, they may be liable. For example, a physician that over-prescribes addictive medications.

To determine if the physician breached that duty or unnecessary prescribed medications the courts would want to see:

History of Abuse with Narcotics and Recreational Drugs

Proving that the physician was negligent for the actions of the patient is complicated, but not impossible. One way to determine that the physician could have reasonably seen an addiction issue is the patient’s history.

A patient who is a recovering drug user or addict should not be prescribed narcotic pain medications. Instead, physicians have a plethora of non-narcotic and non-addictive options to give their patients. For example, if the patient was a heroin addict ten years ago, the physician should not prescribe narcotic pain medications.

Also, if the patient has a minor injury, but continually seeks narcotic pain medications to manage it, the physician should review the patient’s history, look for alternative treatments, and not continue to prescribe.

Another indicator in the patient’s history would be how many physicians they have seen. When a patient is addicted, they may hop from one physician to another when their treating physician starts denying their requests for more narcotics.

While a physician could be negligent for failing to review a patient’s history, they are not mind readers. If the patient does not disclose their history of abuse or that they are a recovering addict, the physician cannot be liable for prescribing medications that kickstart further addictions.

Long-Term Use of Pain Medication without Referral to Pain Management

Another example would be how long the patient has taken narcotic painkillers.

For example, the patient had a legitimate use for the medication initially. They had a painful surgery that required narcotic medications to help them recover.

While they had a reasonable need for narcotics at the time, five years later they are still taking the same medication and do not have a justifiable need any longer. The prescribing physician has not referred them out for pain management, weaned them to a lower dose to help them cope without their medication, or use alternative treatments. In this case, the physician obviously fed the addiction and would be liable.

Alternatively, if the same physician did refer the patient to a pain management clinic, used alternative treatments, and has lowered the dose of narcotics – doing everything in their power to stop an addiction or prevent that habit – they cannot be liable for the addiction.

Can You Sue the Drug Manufacturer?

Suing a drug manufacturer for an addiction falls under product liability. A manufacturer could technically be liable for a drug addiction, but only if they have failed to protect the public due to one out of three ways:

  1. Defects in manufacturing
  2. Defective design
  3. Defective warnings

For example, if the company fails to warn physicians or patients about the potential risk for addiction, then they could be liable. Likewise, if they have a medication that is easily abused and do not take measures to prevent addiction, they may be responsible.

Also, companies that heavily market their narcotic pain medications to physicians and told to prescribe those medications could be liable.

Proving liability against a drug manufacturer, however, is very complicated and requires assistance from a product liability attorney.

Can You Sue for an Addiction? See an Attorney

If you or a loved one suffers from a narcotic addiction and you feel that your physician is the cause of that addiction, it is best that you speak with an experienced attorney.

Contact Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. Call 866-479-7909 or contact us online to get started.