Are Doctors Liable for Pain Medication Addiction?

A doctor might be liable for opioid addiction and other prescription medication overuse if medical negligence can be shown.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Patients recovering from surgery or particularly painful injuries are often prescribed narcotic or opioid pain medications. Although these drugs are effective in reducing discomfort, they have serious downsides: Overprescription, abuse, and addiction are all too common.

When a patient suffering from addiction can demonstrate that the prescribing doctor did not apply the proper standard of care under the treatment circumstances, there might be a viable medical malpractice case. In this article, we'll provide:

  • a snapshot of legal issues related to pain medication addiction, and
  • the challenges of establishing a physician's liability for prescription medication addiction, and related harm.

How Common Is Pain Medication Addiction?

Most narcotic pain medications are made from opium, which is the natural ingredient in the highly addictive street drug heroin. The main natural narcotic pain medications are morphine and codeine, and the major synthetic opioids are Dilaudid, Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin (oxycodone). All of these narcotic pain medications require a prescription, and all have the potential to be addictive.

Once a patient is addicted to pain medication, it's very difficult to stop taking the drug. Some patients turn to alternative drugs (legal and otherwise) in an effort to self-medicate. The high incidence of addiction—along with the difficulty of breaking the cycle of addiction—has led to the opioid crisis felt in communities nationwide. Learn more about the opioid crisis and drug company liability.

What Is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice is an offshoot of personal injury law that asks whether a medical professional's negligence caused or contributed to a patient's injury or death. Medical malpractice can arise from countless kinds of action (or inaction) on the part of health care providers.

Courts often define medical negligence as a health care provider's failure to exercise the degree of care and skill of the average health care provider who practices the provider's specialty, taking into account the advances in the profession and resources available to the provider.

Patient's Addiction and Physician Negligence

In order to determine if a patient's addiction to pain medications resulted from medical malpractice, the patient must prove that the doctor was negligent—in other words, that the doctor failed to meet the applicable medical standard of care in treating the patient.

Demonstrating negligence in a medical malpractice lawsuit is a complex task that almost always requires the assistance of a lawyer. As part of putting together the patient's best case, the lawyer will likely work with one or more medical expert witnesses, who will review all relevant medical records and provide an opinion as to whether the doctor provided sub-standard care. The expert witness is usually a physician who practices or teaches in the same field as the doctor being sued (the defendant).

To provide an opinion in a pain medication medical malpractice lawsuit, the expert witness will take into account many factors, including the:

  • patient's medical history
  • patient's symptoms
  • patient's diagnosis
  • doctor's experience and training
  • doctor's follow up with the patient, and the
  • accepted standard of care during the treatment period.

The Patient's Medical History

The key question regarding a patient's medical history in a pain medication malpractice suit is often whether the patient has a history of addiction. You probably don't need to look at a medical textbook to figure out that prescribing OxyContin to someone with a narcotics addiction in their past is likely a bad decision. However, the patient would need to demonstrate that the doctor's decision to prescribe the medication in light of the patient's history violated the accepted standard of care. And, if the patient failed to disclose a past addiction, it's less likely that the doctor could be found negligent.

Let's say a patient had a minor back injury such as a lumbar (low back) strain, and that the patient's physician prescribed OxyContin (oxycodone). Let's also say that, ten years earlier, the patient had beaten a heroin addiction and told the doctor about it. Considering that a lumbar strain is not usually considered a serious injury, the doctor in this instance might be deemed negligent, but if the patient hadn't disclosed any previous heroin use, that fact alone might exonerate the doctor.

The Patient's Diagnosis and Symptoms

As an example, let's say a patient suffered a painful herniated disc and had intense, non-stop pain. The patient's doctor gave the patient a prescription for Percocet, but, five years later, the patient is still taking the narcotics, is addicted to them, and still has severe pain. The patient has tried several times to break the addiction and take non-narcotic pain medications, but has not been successful. Is the doctor liable for the patient's addiction?

Given the diagnosis and continuing symptoms, the medical textbooks might suggest that a reasonable, competent doctor should refer the patient to a pain management doctor—a physician who specializes in treating severe, permanent pain without the use of narcotic pain medications. These specialists also help patients break addictions.

If a medical expert is willing to give an opinion that the doctor's failure to refer the patient to a pain management specialist amounts to negligence, this patient might have a viable malpractice case.

If you're considering suing a pain management doctor for overprescribing opioids, the evaluation of your potential suit would be much the same. The ultimate question would be whether the pain management doctor applied the accepted standard of care and acted in the same (or a similar manner) as other reasonable, competent pain management specialists would have acted when dealing with the specific patient.

The Doctor's Actions

The doctor's experience, training, and conduct will all come into play in a medical malpractice lawsuit. When a doctor practices medicine beyond the scope of their training and competence, the chances of being held liable for malpractice greatly increase. In the example above, the doctor continued to prescribe narcotics despite the fact that they were not helping the patient's pain, and the patient had developed an addiction—which would call for help from an addiction specialist.

Other factors that would come into play include:

  • Did the doctor follow up with the patient after prescribing the pain medication? For example, did the doctor continue to refill the prescription without follow up?
  • Has the doctor overprescribed narcotics in the past?
  • Did the doctor warn the patient of the medication's side effects or propensity for addiction?
  • Did the doctor advise the patient of pain management alternatives beyond opioids?

Learn more about proving medical malpractice and the challenges of winning a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Talk to a Medical Malpractice Attorney

Pain medication addiction cases can be complex on a number of different fronts, so if you think a doctor's conduct might rise to the level of medical negligence, it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced attorney. Learn how to find the right medical malpractice lawyer for you and your case.

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