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If a Prescription Drug Overdose Death Occurs, is the Medical Professional Liable?

An Atlanta-area woman recently died from an accidental overdose of prescription medication.

Authorities state that 38-year-old Joy Wommack, of Duval, died in October 2012 from a lethal combination of Xanax, Valium, and various antidepressants and painkillers that she apparently had obtained from the nearby Physician Pain Management clinic.

Dr. Russell Sachs, the clinic’s director, who is also board-certified in addiction treatment, said in an interview that doctor-shopping and overmedication were to blame for the deaths of Ms. Wommack and three other clinic patients.

Dr. Sachs denied that the clinic was a “pill-mill.”

High rates of drug overdose deaths

Drug overdose deaths have tripled since 1990; of the 36,000 people who died in 2008, the government says that “most” deaths could be attributed to accidental prescription drug overdose. Death rates vary widely by state, with little or no discernible pattern: 9.5 of every 100,000 Georgians died of an accidental drug overdose in 2008, while neighboring Florida had a death rate that was nearly twice as high.

A medical professional may be liable for a drug overdose injury or death in several different situations:

  • Pharmacy error: Medicine may be labeled inaccurately, or a pharmacist may give drugs to someone who is either not yet entitled to a refill or who is taking another drug that may trigger ill effects.
  • Doctor error: Most jurisdictions have laws that prohibit doctors from prescribing medication without examining the patient or gathering a proper health history. Another red flag is doctors who write prescriptions outside of their normal area of practice: for example, a podiatrist should not issue a prescription for Paxil, an antidepressant.

Aggravating circumstances, such as alcohol and illegal drugs, may be present in some overdose cases, but such circumstances should not normally excuse a medical provider from liability. For a free consultation with an attorney who understands the pain medical negligence can cause, contact our office.