Patients who believe their doctors and pharmacists acted negligently in allowing them to become and remain addicted to powerful prescription painkillers and psychoactive have won an important case before the West Virginia Supreme Court. The ruling in Tug Valley Pharmacy et al. v. All Plaintiffs applies only in the Mountaineer State, but it could lead to more careful and considered drug prescribing and dispensing across the United States.
The case involved dozens of people who claimed that so-called “pill mills” irresponsibly distributed medications such as OxyContin (oxycodone), Lortab (acetaminophen and hydrocodone) and Xanax (alprazolam) without taking proper precautions to prevent harmful outcomes, especially addiction. The opioids and anti-anxiety drugs named in the lawsuit have high risks for abuse and dependence, and each is subject to strict state and federal controls.
The pharmacists and physicians involved had all been investigated for violating rules for prescribing and dispensing controlled substances. Several had admitted to doing so in criminal court pleas. The patients subsequently filed separate and joint civil lawsuits for medical malpractice.
The state Supreme Court ruling allows the claims for damages to go forward by making juries responsible for determining whether the medical practitioners bore principal liability for getting and keeping people addicted. West Virginia civil law recognizes comparative negligence, meaning that victims do not need to be completely blameless in order to hold others accountable for injuries.
Virginia, where my medical malpractice attorney colleagues primarily practice, follows the opposite legal theory of contributory negligence. If a defendant in a Virginia malpractice case can show that a plaintiff played any role in harming him or herself, the defendant can escape liability. For prescription painkiller addicts, demonstrating contributory negligence could be easy.
That difference highlights the importance of the comparative negligence-based ruling in West Virginia. Patients place enormous trust in their doctors and pharmacists. Staying healthy often requires a patient to assume that physicians and other providers are acting only in his or her best interest. Operating a pill mill, a business concerned more with generating profits than with healing, completely betrays that trust. Patients victimized by careless health care practitioners should have the right to call those negligent professionals to account.