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Can Doctors Be Held Responsible for Overdose Deaths in Pennsylvania?

Posted on August 3, 2022

For over 20 years, an opioid epidemic has claimed more than a half million American lives. Countless drug companies and pharmacies have been sued, but the role of doctors is also being questioned. Some are accused of unnecessarily and routinely prescribing controlled substances, turning their practices into “pill mills.” As a result, many in Pennsylvania wonder whether these doctors can be held responsible for overdose deaths. However, based on a 2022 supreme court ruling, the answer is generally no, depending on the doctor’s intent. 

U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Doctors

Two doctors charged and convicted of separately overprescribing opioids or running “pill mill” operations challenged their convictions. The doctors argued that they acted in “good faith,” and they intended to provide care for their patients. In contrast, prosecutors in both cases argued that the doctors’ prescriptions were not for legitimate medical purposes. Due to the opioid epidemic, more courts have been upholding convictions of doctors found guilty of overprescribing regardless of intent. 

However, in June 2022, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the two doctors, requiring a higher burden of proof that the physicians more than violated objective standards. In other words, for it to be a crime, there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the doctors knew they acted in an unauthorized manner or intended to do so. 

When Can a Doctor Be Held Responsible for an Overdose Death?

Doctors in Pennsylvania can potentially be held responsible for an opioid overdose death if there is proof that they knew the linked prescription was not prescribed for a legitimate medical purpose. Alternatively, doctors can possibly be held liable for an overdose death if the linked prescription was prescribed for a misdiagnosed underlying medical condition or illness or if the related medication was prescribed because of a condition the physician caused due to medical negligence. 

For example, suppose a doctor prescribes an opioid due to a cancer misdiagnosis and the patient overdoses. In that case, the doctor may be liable for the patient’s death because they misdiagnosed cancer and unnecessarily prescribed the opioid for pain relief. In another example, suppose a surgeon performed surgery on a patient’s back when they were supposed to operate on their leg. As a result, the patient suffered debilitating back pain, leading to an opioid prescription. In that case, the surgeon may be liable for the patient’s overdose death since their negligence caused the patient’s pain. 

What Damages Can Be Recovered After an Overdose Death in Pennsylvania?

An overdose victim’s family has the right to pursue a wrongful death claim against the prescribing physician. In Pennsylvania, the person named as the personal representative of the deceased’s estate can file the claim, or if the deceased did not have a will, a family member or friend can volunteer with the court’s approval. The types of damages available will vary based on the circumstances of each case but can include: 

  • Medical bills caused by the overdose, which led to the victim’s death;
  • Funeral, cremation, or burial expenses;
  • Loss of the deceased’s expected income; 
  • Loss of benefits;
  • Estate administration expenses
  • Reduction in the inheritance suffered by surviving children;
  • Loss of parental guidance;
  • Loss of support and services that the victim provided;
  • Loss of society, companionship, comfort, guidance, and advice.
  • Compensation for the conscious pain and suffering the deceased endured before their death.
  • Interest on top of the damages awarded, calculated from the date of death. 

In some cases, punitive damages may also be awarded if the prescribing physician’s actions were extremely reckless or egregious. 

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