Are Doctors Liable for Pain Medication Addiction?

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

People who are recovering from surgery or very painful injuries are often prescribed narcotic or opioid pain medications. These medications are very effective in reducing pain and discomfort, but in certain circumstances overprescription, overuse, and addiction can result. In this article, we'll discuss whether a patient's addiction to medication might give rise to a viable medical malpractice lawsuit.

How Common is Pain Medication Addiction?

Most narcotic pain medications are made from opium, which is the natural ingredient in the street drug heroin, which is of course extremely addictive. The main natural narcotic pain medications are morphine and codeine, and the major synthetic opioids are Dilaudid, Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin (oxycodone).

Once a patient is addicted to pain medication, it's very difficult to stop taking the drug. Many people can, with help, break an addiction to pain medication, but some can’t break the addiction on their own. Some patients turn to alternative drugs (legal and otherwise) in an effort to self-medicate. The impact of the "opioid crisis" has been felt in communities nationwide.

If a patient gets addicted to a narcotic pain medication, let's set aside the issue of whether or not drug companies should be liable. Can opioid addiction be considered the doctor’s fault? Is it medical malpractice?

What is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice can arise from countless kinds of action (or inaction) on the part of health care providers, but the main cause of medical malpractice always boils down to medical negligence.

In medical malpractice cases, 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.

So, in order to determine if a patient’s addiction to pain medications constitutes medical malpractice, you have to prove that the doctor failed to meet the applicable medical standard of care in treating the patient.

Proving a Physician Was Negligent

In order to prove that a physician was negligent in any medical malpractice case, your lawyer has to obtain all of your medical records relating to the treatment in question, and will almost always have to hire a medical expert witness to review your medical records and provide an opinion as to whether the doctor provided sub-standard care. This qualified medical expert is usually a physician who practices and/or teaches in the same field as the defendant in the lawsuit. Learn more about proving medical negligence.

Proving a Patient Was Overprescribed Pain Medications

In order to prove that a physician was negligent in a pain medication addiction claim, your medical expert witness will typicaly consider:

  • your medical history
  • your diagnoses
  • your complaints of pain and discomfort
  • your doctor’s objective medical findings
  • your doctor’s experience in treating your condition, and
  • what the medical textbooks and medical literature say on how to treat your condition, among other things.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to better understand the key legal issues here:

Previouse Addictions or Problems With Narcotics

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. You probably don’t need to look at a medical textbook to figure out that prescribing OxyContin to someone who had previously been addicted to narcotics is a bad decision. Further, 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 might exonerate the doctor.

Long-Term Use and No Pain Management Referral

Let’s look at a harder example. Let’s say the patient suffered a painful herniated disk and had surgery for it, but every day, the patient is suffering serious pain. The patient’s orthopedist 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 this malpractice?

In this case, the medical textbooks might suggest that, if an orthopedist has been unable to cure or reduce a patient’s pain after several years, the orthopedist should refer the patient to a pain management specialist, a physician who specializes in treating severe, permanent pain without the use of narcotic pain medications. These specialists also help patients break addictions. If, in this case, a medical expert is willing to give an opinion that the orthopedist’s failure to refer the patient to a pain management specialist amounts to negligence, this patient might have a viable malpractice case against the orthopedist.

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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