Can a Pharmacist Be Sued for Negligence?

Learn about a pharmacist's legal obligations when dispensing medication, and when they could be sued for harm to a patient.

Pharmacists play an integral role in our health care system. Pharmacists are entrusted to dispense medications to patients, so their mistakes can have life-altering or life-threatening consequences. In this article, we'll discuss situations in which a pharmacist might be liable for negligence and professional malpractice – and subsequently sued.

A Pharmacist’s Legal Duties

In the modern health care system, the pharmacist’s job can go well beyond simply counting out pills and giving them out to a patient who is holding a prescription.

A pharmacist’s specific responsibilities to patients are a matter of state law, and those obligations differ from state to state. While some states still maintain the old view that pharmacists are only responsible for properly following a physician’s instructions in the prescription, other states take a much broader view of what a pharmacist is supposed to do.

Depending on your state’s law, a pharmacist might be responsible for the following additional tasks other than just accurately dispensing the medication that is called for in a prescription:

  • reviewing a prescription in light of the patient’s past medical history
  • warning the patient of potential side effects from the medication
  • screening multiple prescriptions from different health care providers to make sure that they can be taken together
  • contacting the patient’s health care provider to advise them if, if, in the pharmacist’s opinion, the prescription would be harmful to the patient or multiple prescriptions should not be taken together
  • keeping and referring to patient’s medical history, and
  • offering to discuss the patient’s medication, at least with respect to Medicaid patients.

Let’s look at some of these tasks and responsibilities in more detail, and in the context of things that could go wrong and lead to a pharmacist's liability for medical negligence.

Dispensing the Wrong Medication

Dispensing the wrong medication is simply unacceptable. Whether it be dispensing the wrong medication entirely or dispensing the wrong strength of the proper medication, any pharmacist who deviates from the physician’s instructions and gives out the wrong medication is almost always going to be found negligent.

Even if somehow the pharmacist dispensed the wrong medication because it was mislabeled by the manufacturer, a jury may well find that the pharmacist should have caught the error. All pills are different and have different labels or codes stamped on them. A pharmacist should have a reasonably good sense of what different pills look like, especially for the more common medications. If a pill doesn't look right, it is the pharmacist’s job to catch the manufacturer’s error.

Obviously, if there was no manufacturer mislabeling, and it was the pharmacist him/herself who gave the wrong medication to the patient, there is no excuse for that.

Failing to Take a Patient’s Medical History into Account

Let’s say that the pharmacist works in a state that requires pharmacists to take a patient’s medical history into account when dispensing medication.

If, for example, the pharmacy’s records show that the patient is seriously allergic to a certain medication, the pharmacist would have a duty to refuse to dispense that medication to the patient. Instead, the pharmacist would be required to either contact the patient’s physician him/herself or instruct the patient to go back and see the physician again. If the pharmacist fails to do either of these things and simply gives out the medication to the patient, the pharmacist could be on the hook for negligence.

Alternatively, let’s say this was the first time the patient visited this particular pharmacist. If the prescription was for a medication that has a serious and common risk of allergic reaction, the pharmacist might be required to ask the patient about his/her allergy history to try to figure out if the patient might have an adverse reaction to that medication.

Failing to Screen Multiple Prescriptions

Let’s say that a patient is already taking three prescriptions from three different doctors when he shows up at the pharmacist with a fourth prescription from a fourth doctor. That pharmacist’s state might require the pharmacist to review all four prescriptions to make sure that the patient can safely take the fourth prescription in light of the first three. In that state, a pharmacist who fails to screen multiple prescriptions can be found negligent.

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