Are Medical Care Providers Liable for Drug Overdoses?

The term “drug overdose” means different things to different people. For some, the term conjures thoughts of overindulgent celebrities partying, consuming too many drugs, and dying. That’s understandable given all of the American actors and musicians who have met this type of tragic end and the amount of media coverage it generates. Other people hear “drug overdose” and envision people purchasing drugs from shady characters on dark street corners. Then, of course, there are those unfortunate times when people intentionally take excessive amounts of legal drugs in an effort to take their own lives.

But there are also times when drug overdoses occur accidentally and due to no fault of the person who overdoses. In this article, we’ll consider a variety of drug overdose situations and discuss whether medical care providers can be liable for them.

The Scope of Drug Overdoses in the United States

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70,237 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2017. Opioids caused 67.8 percent of those deaths. Importantly, the CDC also reports that for each fatal drug overdose, many more overdoses occur that do not result in death. These non-fatal overdoses can cause both mental and physical injury.

Potential Liability for Drug Overdoses

When people intentionally act recklessly or harm themselves with drug overdoses, it would be a rare circumstance in which they could blame another party for the consequences.

However, drug overdoses do occur in which medical providers can be found at fault. Below are some examples.

  • Failure to act responsibly when prescribing – Some patients have histories with drug abuse or misuse and are not good candidates for certain drugs. Similarly, some patients attempt to obtain far too many prescriptions for drugs. It can be negligent for a health care provider to ignore such information.
  • Prescribing or administering a drug to which a patient is allergic – Patients should always be asked to identify drugs to which they are allergic. However, even when the patient properly does so, a mistake may lead to the drug being administered to the patient anyway.
  • Medical care providers’ failure to properly monitor a patient - Sometimes, a medicine has unexpected adverse effects. There are times when proper monitoring of the patient allows the issue to be corrected without harm. Improper monitoring, on the other hand, can lead to harm or even overdoses.
  • Prescribing too much medication – A doctor or physician’s assistant may simply prescribe the wrong dosage of a certain medicine – in other words, too great of an amount of the drug. The patient, following the medical care provider’s instructions, then unknowingly overdoses.
  • Pharmacist negligence – Even if a medicine is prescribed correctly, a pharmacist may fill the prescription incorrectly or label it incorrectly.
  • Nursing malpractice - A nurse or other health care provider in charge of giving a patient medication may make a mistake and administer too much of the correct drug. Similarly, the nurse may be confused or make a mistake and give the wrong drug to the wrong patient.

In conclusion, there are definitely circumstances in which medical care providers can be liable for drug overdoses. The above list of examples is certainly not exhaustive. Each case is different and relies upon its own unique facts. Careful investigation and collaboration with experts is often required to evaluate a case.

Call with Questions

If you’ve been affected by an overdose that led to injury or tragic loss of life, we invite you to call us with your questions. The experienced medical malpractice and personal injury lawyers at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield are familiar with this area of law and can help you sort out your rights. We believe that it is crucial to hold people responsible for their actions when they fail to meet the applicable standard of care. Such accountability is an important way we can help make society safer for everyone.


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