Bloomberg reports that there are over 900 cases filed around the country with respect to opioid deaths, addictions, and costs to local and state communities. See the report here. It is likely that number is higher than reported and, most certainly, has increased since that report was filed. Many of the cases have been brought as personal injury and medical malpractice cases against physicians, hospitals and pharmacists for such causes as:
- Wrongful death
- Failure to warn
- Failure to diagnose signs of addition post-prescription
- Failure to treat post-prescription addiction
If a loved one has committed suicide or died because of an overdose here in Georgia, you may be entitled to sue. If you yourself have become addicted or have suffered other complications from the opioids, you may be entitled to sue for damages. The specific medications include hydrocodone, oxycodone, Dilaudid, methadone, Duragesic, morphine, and fentanyl. There is little question that, under some circumstances, physicians and hospitals have committed medical malpractice with respect to prescribing various opioids, even gross malpractice as Dr. Walden committed in the Koon case discussed below.
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Juries and judges around the country are finally beginning to hold the wrongdoers accountable. As discussed in this article, a Missouri jury awarded nearly $17 million against a physician and the hospital where he worked. $15 million of the verdict was punitive damages awarded to punish the doctor and the hospital for behavior that was considered “tantamount to intentional wrongdoing.” See a write up of the case here.
Opioids Are Dangerous
As background, it is important to understand that opioids are very dangerous. The word “opioid” is now used to mean any and all substances — natural and synthetic — that affect or bind the opioid receptors in the brain. Blocking or binding those receptors results in the pain relief. Synthetic opioids are the one listed above; natural opioids include street drugs like heroin. See fact sheet here.
New research suggests that the synthetic opioids act differently than the natural versions. The natural versions seem to stop at the cell membranes in the brain and affect receptors only at that level. The new research shows that synthetic opioids go into the cells themselves, affecting additional receptors within the cell. The natural opioids are highly addictive, but the synthetic versions may be even more addictive because they are blocking at least one additional set of receptors.
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Whether natural or synthetic, it can be said that any person taking opioids for more than a very brief period of time will likely become addicted to them. Opioids create dependency and addiction. This occurs because use of the compound causes tolerance to build up in the body. Tolerance means that the effectiveness of each dose incrementally decreases. Putting it another way, more and more of the drug is needed to give the same pain-killing effect. As discussed below with respect to Mr. Koon, he began showing signs of tolerance within a month. Higher dosages are linked to a greater risk of physical damage to the body and death. Further, the chemical compounds create physical changes in the body and brain chemistry. This creates a physical dependency that is separate and apart from the pain-relief dependency. The combination also creates a psychological dependency.
Missouri Couple Awarded Nearly $17 Million
As noted above, a Missouri jury awarded nearly $17 million in a case where the plaintiff and his wife alleged malpractice against a physician and the hospital where he worked related to opioid prescriptions. See Koon v. Walden, 539 SW 3d 752 (Mo. App. 1st Div. 2017). The physician — Dr. Walden — had been the primary physician for the patient, Brian Koon, since 2001. Koon suffered a fall in 2008 and sought pain treatment as a result.
In February 2008, Dr. Walden wrote a prescription for 30 pills of the opioid hydrocodone with one refill. As the research and medical science would suggest, Koon’s body almost immediately begin to build up tolerance to the opioids. Just around a month later, at the end of March 2008, Koon called Dr. Walden’s and requested a refill of the hydrocodone. He explained that he was taking double the amount of pills directed by his prescription. Dr. Walden prescribed more medication.
This pattern continued. In July 2008, Koon reported that he had increased the amount of hydrocodone, but reported that he then tried to decrease the amount. He reported that when he tried to decrease his usage, he “felt very bad, shaky, nose running, sweating, weak, yawning and moody.” But, once he took more hydrocodone, he felt “better within an hour.”
In February 2009, Koon was switched from hydrocodone to oxycontin, another opioid. By August of 2009, he had been prescribed and was using three opioids: hydrocodone, oxycontin, and oxycodone (a longer-acting version of oxycontin). Dr. Walden continued to prescribe all three opioids in increasing amounts during 2010 and 2011. In May 2012, Koon and his wife went to see Dr. Walden. The testimony at trial was that during the visit, Koon was in tears asking Dr. Walden to get him off the medications and telling him that the pills were running his life. But the prescriptions continued. By the later summer 2012, Koon was prescribed almost 40 pills of opioids a day between the three prescriptions. Koons eventually was admitted to a drug rehab facility and was diagnosed as having severe opioid use disorder. His addiction affected his ability to work and his personal relationship with his wife, daughter, friends, and other family.
As noted, Koons and his wife sued Dr. Walden and the hospital where he worked. They alleged medical malpractice including mis-prescribing, over-prescribing, failure to warn, failure to diagnose his addiction (signs of which appeared in 2008), and failure to treat his addictions.
Like Georgia, Missouri is a comparative negligence jurisdiction. Thus, the jury DID find Koon partially at fault for his own addiction. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Koon, holding him one-third at fault and assessing the other two-thirds to Dr. Walden and the hospital. Judgment was entered awarding Koon $938,000 and $804,000 to his wife. The jury also awarded punitive damages in the amount of $15,000,000 against the defendants.
The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed in all respects.
With respect to the punitive damages, Dr. Walden and the hospital argued that there had been no “intentional misconduct” to warrant the award of punitive damages — intentional conduct being required under Missouri law. The court rejected the argument holding that the evidence showed a willful failure to monitor the condition of a patient that such was “tantamount to intentional wrongdoing.”
Contact the Roger Ghai Law Offices
The Koon case is a breathtaking example of medical malpractice with respect to over-prescribing of medications. If you have experienced anything like what Mr. Koon and his family experienced, call the skilled medical malpractice and personal injury attorneys at the Roger Ghai Law Offices. We here at our law firm have years of experience recovering compensation on behalf of clients who have been injured by doctor and hospital malpractice and dangerous medications. We provide legal services for the residents of Cobb County including the communities of Kennesaw, Acworth, Marietta, and the surrounding areas. Click here to schedule your consultation.