What You Need to Know About Opioid Lawsuits
Doctors prescribe opioids to manage their patients’ acute and chronic pain. Acute pain is typically short-term, the sort that accompanies recovery from surgery, burns, lacerations, and fractures. Chronic pain is long-lasting and is associated with conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, cancer, and back injuries.
Opioids are an important tool that doctors use for pain management. Unfortunately, these drugs also put patients at risk of addiction. Oftentimes, people who begin using opioids to treat a pain condition end up abusing them long after their prescription runs out, acquiring them illegally from unreliable and dangerous sources. Opioid abuse can land people in the hospital or even kill them.
Opioids have also been documented as a gateway drug—the addiction patients form around using (and abusing) opioids leads to the use of other, stronger addictive substances. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 80 percent of those who use heroin began by misusing opioids.
This guide examines the plague of opioid use in the United States and describes some common situations where opioid use might lead to a personal injury lawsuit. It also offers an update about Florida’s lawsuits against drug companies that manufacture opioids and information about what you can expect if you are involved in an opioid lawsuit.
If you have been injured because of another person’s opioid use, or through your own use of opioids, you might be entitled to take legal action for compensation. Contact Dolman Law Group in Clearwater at (727) 451-6900 to learn more.
What Are Opioids?
The term opioid refers to any synthetic or natural substance that binds to the brain’s opioid receptors. The opioid blocks signals of pain and prompts the release of dopamine throughout the body, which encourages dependence, addiction, and abuse. Opioids include natural opiates from the poppy plant such as heroin, morphine, and codeine, as well as lab-created opioids such as fentanyl, methadone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. In addition to pain management, doctors sometimes use opioids to treat coughing and diarrhea.
Commonly Prescribed Opioids
Heroin is the most addictive and dangerous opioid in the world and it isn’t used for medicinal purposes in the U.S. Synthetic opioids (with common brands in parentheses) that are most often prescribed in the United States include:
- Hydrocodone with acetaminophen (Vicodin)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin)
- Oxycodone with acetaminophen (Percocet)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora)
- Methadone(Dolophine, Methadose)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
Driving and Taking Opioids in Clearwater
According to Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV), 968 traffic crashes in 2017 involved drivers who were under the influence of drugs—an increase of 70 crashes from 2016. This doesn’t include the hundreds more crashes that involved both drugs and alcohol.
Clearwater is in Pinellas County, where drugs other than alcohol contributed to 19 crashes, 23 injuries, and five deaths in a recent year. A combination of other drugs and alcohol contributed to 15 crashes, 18 injuries, and 10 fatalities.
Data that differentiates between types of drugs aren’t available, so it’s next to impossible to know whether drivers were using illegal or prescription drugs in those accidents.
A 2011 study in Baltimore, however, examined the relationship between prescriptions drugs and traffic accidents. Researchers found that 61.5 percent of non-drinking drivers involved in crashes were taking prescription drugs, typically opioids. Researchers who study the public health effects of opioid use and abuse suggest that the findings in Maryland hold true in other states. Florida is especially likely to be facing an epidemic of opioid-related traffic accidents, because of the relatively large portion of our population who are elderly and taking prescription painkillers.
Under Florida law, driving after taking prescription drugs carries the same penalties as driving under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol. In addition to enumerating the specific substances that may result in a DUI violation, the law also bars operating a vehicle under the influence of “any substance [used] for the purpose of inducing a condition of intoxication or which distorts or disturbs the auditory, visual, or mental processes.” In other words, the cause of a driver’s impairment doesn’t matter. If a driver’s drug-induced impairment—such as the “high” that accompanies taking opioids—contributes to causing an accident, the driver may face criminal penalties and civil liability in Florida courts.
Florida Attorney General Sues Opioid Manufacturers
In an effort to curb Florida’s opioid epidemic, Florida’s attorney general filed lawsuits against the largest opioid manufacturers and distributors. More than 15 Floridians die per day from opioid abuse and overdose. The vast majority of the top opioid-prescribing physicians in the country operate in Florida, putting Floridians at high risk having opioid abuse affect their lives in some way. Before the attorney general’s suit, Palm Beach County, Broward County, and Delray Beach had already filed similar lawsuits, each accusing defendants of understating the dangers of prescription opioids used to manage pain.
The Florida lawsuit lists the following companies as defendants:
- Purdue Pharma
- Endo Pharmaceuticals
- Janssen Pharmaceuticals
- AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation
- Cardinal Health
- McKesson Corporation
Florida is suing for damages to recover the public health costs of the opioid epidemic, such as drug treatment programs, birth addiction treatment, foster care for children of drug addicts, and additional law enforcement.
Product Liability Suits Involving Opioids
The State’s lawsuit against drug companies is an example of a product liability suit. Private citizens may also be entitled to bring similar suits against opioid manufacturers, alleging the opioids they took were defective. Under Florida law, manufacturer and distributors of a product may be held liable if a product contains one of three basic kinds of defects: a design defect, a manufacturing defect, or an information (or warning) defect. In matters involving defective pharmaceuticals, claims alleging these defects often translate into cases asserting that:
- A drug has unreasonably dangerous side effects. When a drug causes collateral harm that could have been avoided through a different design, or through more effective warnings to patients and/or medical providers.
- A drug doesn’t work. When a flaw in a drug’s chemical design or because of how the drug was manufactured causes it not to have the effect it is supposed to have.
- A drug is tainted. When a manufacturing process or how the drug was handled before it reached the patient introduces toxic materials that render the drug unreasonably dangerous.
All three of the above types of cases could apply in opioid cases, particularly the first, given the known link between opioids and addiction.
Opioids and Medical Malpractice
In addition to product liability claims, patients who have fallen victim to the opioid addiction epidemic may also have a right to pursue legal action against medical providers who prescribed opioids to them through a medical malpractice suit. Doctors have a legal duty to provide a minimum standard of care to their patients. When a doctor prescribes opioids to a patient in a manner that increases the risk of, or exacerbates, an addiction, the doctor may breach that “duty of care” and face liability for the medical consequences to the patient. These sorts of claims may involve:
- Ignoring a patient’s history of addiction. Doctors should avoid prescribing addictive medications to patients who have previously struggled with substance abuse disorders.
- Improper dosage. Given the known dangers of opioid dependence, doctors should prescribe the minimum medication at the minimum dosage necessary to treat the patient’s condition.
- Failing to monitor a patient’s condition. Doctors should monitor patients to whom they have prescribed opioids to ensure they have not developed a substance use disorder. Signs of problems include seeking early refills, requesting higher doses, and anger or agitation about limits on prescriptions and dosages.
- Acting as a prescription-writing mill. Doctors who write opioid prescriptions for anyone who asks, sometimes in unnecessarily large dosages, may not only be engaging in malpractice, they also may be committing crimes.
Liability in an Opioid-Related Lawsuit
Because of their potentially dangerous side-effects, opioids can play a role in a wide variety of lawsuits, as described above. Opioids can harm patients who become addicted to them, the families of people who overdose on them, and anyone harmed by the impaired behavior of an opioid user (even one who does not struggle with substance abuse). So, for example, a personal injury lawsuit arising out of opioid use may name as a defendant:
- Drug manufacturers, testers, and distributors. In product liability suits involving opioids, the manufacturers and those they work with to design, test, make, and distribute their products.
- Prescribers. Doctors and other medical professionals who prescribe opioids to patients without adequate warnings and controls.
- Pharmacists. Pharmacists who fail to warn opioid consumers, or fail to follow protocols around safe distribution and handling of opioids.
- Parents and guardians. Anyone whose child steals and distributes opioids to peers.
- Employers. Employers whose employees engage in work activities while under the influence of opioids, or who fail to implement programs to monitor and prevent opioid addiction in their workforce.
- Opioid users. Anyone whose dysregulated or impaired behavior because of taking opioids causes someone else harm.
These are just a few of the parties who may have liability in a lawsuit involving opioid use and abuse. The sad fact of the matter is, opioids have become such an enormous public health problem that they can contribute to almost any type of harm imaginable. An experienced personal injury attorney can help assess the harm done by opioids and identify parties with potential liability.
Recovering Damages in an Opioid-Related Lawsuit
If you have been injured because of your use or another person’s use of opioids, Florida law may entitle you to seek compensation for damages in civil court. Because of the wide variety of scenarios in which opioids can inflict harm, the nature of the damages you may recover in an opioid-related lawsuit can vary from case-to-case. Typically, however, those damages may include:
- Medical costs, including ambulance rides, emergency care, drug rehabilitation and detox programs, follow-up visits, therapy, surgery, radiology, and medication. Future medical costs may also be included in this figure.
- Lost wages for time away from work for hospitalization, physical therapy, or time in an inpatient drug treatment facility.
- Lost earning potential, when victims of opioid use and abuse become disabled and unable to return to work in a previous capacity.
- Pain and suffering and similar “non-economic” damages that compensate victims for the physical difficulty and mental anguish opioids have inflicted on their lives.
- Punitive damages, which are available under Florida law “only if the trier of fact, based on clear and convincing evidence, finds that the defendant was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence.”
- Costs associated with wrongful death, in the event opioids caused a tragic loss of life. These may include the loss of the deceased person’s earnings and emotional support, compensation for the deceased person’s pain and suffering, and expenses associated with medical care and funeral arrangements.
An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you determine the type and scope of damages you may be entitled to recover when someone’s opioid use, including your own, has devastated your life.
I Was Injured Because of Opioids. Now What?
Opioids continue to inflict a devastating toll on Floridians of every age and background. If you or a loved one have been struggling with an opioid-related substance use disorder, or if someone’s opioid use caused an accident or injury, or if opioids have taken a loved one from you, the team at The Dolman Law Group in Clearwater wants you to know, you are not alone. We understand the pain and difficulty you are experiencing. We may be able to help.
When opioids destroy lives, their victims deserve compensation. With the help of an experienced, compassionate personal injury lawyer, you can hold the parties who harmed you accountable. Money damages can’t cure addiction or bring back a loved one, but they can help you find the freedom and peace of mind you need to focus on recovery and healing.
Cases involving the toll of opioids can be highly complex. The defendants in these case are often large companies with deep pockets and armies of lawyers. Only the best personal injury lawyers have the experience and resources to take them on and successfully fight for the rights of Floridians ravaged by opioids. The Dolman Law Group in Clearwater is that kind of law firm. Email our team of top-notch, aggressive, sophisticated lawyers or dial (727) 451-6900 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation to discuss the details of your case and learn about your options.
Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765