Medication Errors Resulting in Death: Legal Liability

If a patient dies as a result of an overdose, drug interaction, allergy, or other medication error, his or her family may potentially file a wrongful death lawsuit - but who is liable?

Liability for medication errors is not always cut and dried. Physicians, pharmacists, nurses and other care providers can all make medication-related errors that, in the most serious situations, result in death. Determining liability often involves a detailed analysis of what kind of medication error was made and how that error resulted in death.

Types of Medication Errors

There are many types of medication errors that can result in death. Improper dosage, incorrect medication, failure to recognize drug allergies, failure to recognize dangerous drug interactions -- all of these and more can result in death and subsequent litigation.

Dosage and Prescription Errors

Improper dosage and improper medication cases can involve medical professionals of varying types. Doctors have a duty to prescribe the correct medication in proper dosages. Pharmacists have a duty to dispense exactly what the doctor prescribes, and further have a duty to consult with the doctor if, in the pharmacist's opinion, there are potential issues with the prescription. And in hospital or managed care settings, nurses have a duty to administer drugs according to the doctor’s and pharmacist’s instructions.

Interaction of Multiple Drugs

In the case of lethal drug interactions, pharmacists and physicians bear the brunt of the liability. Physicians are charged with knowing, in general, which drugs they can and cannot prescribe in tandem.

Pharmacists are the last line of defense, as they are counted upon to catch potentially harmful interactions that physicians miss. Injury or illness from drug interactions, which can result in death, is very common. While death from harmful drug interactions are not always the result of medical negligence or medical malpractice, it is entirely possible two or more drugs were prescribed together in a negligent manner.

Who Is Liable?

Liability for medication errors is not always easy to assign. There are many factors involved in prescription drug cases, and the most unpredictable factor is often the behavior of the deceased party. While doctors and pharmacists have multiple duties when it comes to preventing medication errors, the patient has only one: use as directed.

Was It The Patient's Own Fault?

Deaths initially attributed to "medication errors" are often later determined to be injuries resulting from a patient ignoring doctors’ orders. Depending upon the state, even the smallest percentage of negligence attributable to the decedent can bar the estate from recovering damages as a result of medication error.

Individual Medical Provider? Hospital? Pharmaceutical Company?

Medication error cases are filed against individual doctors, pharmacists and nurses as well as against corporate drug retailers and hospitals. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, too, can face liability if their drug is not fit for its intended use, although such suits fall under the heading of product liability and are highly dependent upon state law.

The key in determining liability in a medication error case involves discovering what, exactly, caused the injury. A properly prescribed drug administered improperly by a nurse can result in liability for a hospital, but rarely would result in liability for the prescribing doctor or the pharmacist filling the prescription. Conversely, a nurse that administers a dose of medication as ordered by a doctor and approved by a pharmacist is generally not held liable if the orders she was acting upon were improper.

Determining liability in a medication error case can be a long and arduous process. The process is handicapped by the fact that, in the majority of cases, the decedent died and the cause was discovered after the fact. Medical records, pharmacy records and nurse’s charts are essential to piecing together the story. So, too, is deposition testimony. Very often, once the liability picture begins to become clear, medical providers will begin attempting to settle cases.

Get More Information

There are other key issues that could arise in a medication-related case, including the prospect that the drug manufacturer is liable for failure to warn of potentially deadly side effects. And in any medical malpractice case that results in death, the family members bringing the case need to be aware of specific state laws that govern wrongful death cases in civil court. To learn more, consult with a qualified medical malpractice lawyer, and see AllLaw's section on Medical Malpractice.

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