Prescription Drug or Medication Errors as Medical Malpractice

If you're given the wrong dose of a drug, or the wrong medication altogether, who's on the legal hook?

Updated by , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

A medical malpractice lawsuit can be based on a number of different actions (or failures to act) on the part of a health care professional, but these kinds of cases will always boil down to whether or not the provider's conduct amounted to medical negligence. Do prescription drug errors meet the definition of medical negligence? Let's take a closer look.

What is a Prescription Drug Error?

There are numerous types of prescription drug errors. Some of the more common include:

  • administering the wrong medication to a patient
  • administering the wrong dosage of medication (i.e., too much or too little medication)
  • mislabeling the medication
  • prescribing the patient a medication that the patient is allergic to
  • prescribing the patient a medication that interacts negatively with other medications that the patient is taking, and
  • failing to warn the patient of the common side effects of the medication.

Who Can Be Liable for Prescription Drug Errors?

In a nutshell, anyone and everyone along the chain of prescribing and administering a medication can be liable for prescription drug errors. This includes doctors, nurses, hospitals, the pharmacy departments in hospitals, pharmacists, and the pharmaceutical manufacturer.

Administering the Wrong Medication or Wrong Dosage

Physicians and nurses can be liable for prescribing and/or administering the wrong medication. They can simply make a mistake about what medication should be prescribed or what dosage to prescribe. It can be shockingly easy to administer the wrong amount of medication. If, for example, any of the health care providers in the entire medication chain (from doctor to nurse to pharmacist) misses or transposes a decimal point, the patient could be administered ten or a hundred times too much or too little medication.

Different medications have to be administered in different ways. For example, if the medication is to be administered hypodermically, the nurse might give the shot in the wrong place. Different drugs have to be injected into the body in different places. For example, some drugs must be injected in muscles, while others have to be injected directly into the bloodstream.

Physicians and nurses could be held liable if something as simple as bad handwriting leads to patient harm. Stories of doctors' poor penmanship are nearly as old as the practice of medicine. But bad handwriting on prescriptions is a serious matter. If the pharmacist misreads the prescription, the patient can receive the wrong medication, and whoever wrote the prescription could be held liable (or the pharmacist could be liable for failing to verify what the prescription actually says). Luckily, with most health care providers having switched to computer systems, this kind of error is increasingly rare.

Mislabeling Medication

Sometimes, medications are mislabeled. This can happen either before the medication leaves the manufacturer or at the pharmacy. Either way, if a medication is mislabeled, the patient could receive the wrong medication or the wrong dosage. If the manufacturer or retailer mislabels the medication, that could result in a product liability lawsuit. If the pharmacist mislabels the medication, that could lead to a legitimate medical malpractice case.

Prescribing Harmful Medication (Allergies and Interaction)

This type of prescription drug error is usually the fault of the pharmacist. It is generally the pharmacist's job to keep track of a patient's allergies and all medications the patient is taking (to avoid harmful interactions between more than one medication), although your doctor should have this information as well.

This is one reason to always use the same pharmacy for all of your prescriptions. That way, your pharmacist will have all of your prescription records handy and can advise you and your doctors if one of your medications conflict with any others.

Failing to Warn of Side Effects

This can be the job of the doctor or nurse who prescribed the medication, as well as that of the pharmacist. Patients need to be informed about common side effects of medications, as well as what types of foods the patient should avoid when taking a certain medication. For example, numerous medications, including medications for high cholesterol and high blood pressure, do not work properly when patients consume grapefruit. That's just one example. Always ask your doctor about your medication's side effects, including foods and drinks to avoid while taking the medication.

Damages in a Prescription Drug Error Case

The impact of a prescription drug error can range from minimal to fatal, depending on the nature of the error. If you suspect that you received the wrong medication, you should contact your pharmacist and your physician at once and follow their instructions. If you believe you were the victim of a prescription drug error and you've suffered harm as a result, it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer.

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