Overprescription of Painkillers – Who is Responsible for the Consequences?

One headline last week seemed pretty outrageous. The headlines from the New York Daily read, “Admitted Drug Dealer Sues Doctor Who Prescribed Painkillers.” However, the article brings up some very interesting issues.

That case involved a convicted drug dealer, Lionel Sease, who was sentenced to 6 to 16 years for possession with intent to distribute. Sease led investigators to his doctor who had over-prescribed various painkillers to Sease which were the drugs for which Mr. Sease was charged and convicted. The doctor was charged and convicted for Medicaid fraud and illegally dispensing drugs. Sease has now filed a personal injury suit against the doctor for $35 million in punitive damages and $8 million in compensatory damages for the over-prescription of Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin which led to Sease‘s addiction.

This at first may seem outrageous and frivolous. On the other hand, abuse of painkillers such as those prescribed to Sease has reached near epidemic levels. The problem is particularly acute among teenagers and young adults. The courts are overrun with these cases. So too are rehab facilities and the morgues.

How much responsibility should be placed on the medical professionals that over-prescribe these drugs? These drugs clearly have therapeutic benefits. They are necessary for pain management in many cases including injuries or other conditions causing chronic pain. When does the responsibility pass from the patient to the doctor? Certainly, the patient must share responsibility for overuse and consequent over-prescription of these powerful painkillers.

On the other hand, isn‘t this the essence of addiction, an inability to moderate use of these drugs? In the case of Mr. Sease, there may be little sympathy from a jury. But one does not need to look far to see the catastrophic consequences of the over-prescription of painkillers. Where should the line is drawn on causation which is a necessary element to any personal injury lawsuit?

The problem and consequences of pain killer addiction has taken on added interest and urgency across the country, including Albuquerque, with a growing trend of pain killer abuse and addiction among youth and young adults. Often, painkiller abuse begins with legitimate usage even among high school and college aged kids.

Youth and young adults are generally more susceptible to injury from a variety of youthful activities,. High school athletes are particularly prone to injury sometimes very serious requiring painkillers. Who then is responsible for over prescription, unnecessary duration, and unjustified refills? Is it the parents, the doctor, the kid? These are very difficult questions and these questions haunt many parents who have seen their children go down this road.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the rising use of heroin among youth and young adults. The headlines in Albuquerque have tragically reported a number of heroin related deaths of high school kids and recent graduates over the last year. Why is this of interest here? As opioids, the physical effects of oxycodone and oxycontin mimic that of heroin. There appears to be a relationship between addiction to these drugs and later heroin use. The problem is likely to grow worse since heroin is now cheaper, and apparently easier to get for high school and college kids than these painkillers.

There is an indisputable relationship between drug addiction and crime. There is a clear relationship between drug addiction and criminal convictions. The overcrowded prisons are a testament to that relationship. In the case of painkiller addiction that begins with a doctor‘s negligent, reckless or willful over-prescription, is it so hard to draw the line of causation.

Is Mr. Sease‘s lawsuit really all that outrageous? And what of the high school athletes or other young people who have seen their futures ruined as a result of painkiller addiction? What should a jury say to a parent who has lost a child to overdose from painkillers (the death rate from opioid use tripled from 1999 to 2007 according to the Center for Disease Control). And what of the parent who has lost a child to heroin, jail or prison arising out of an addiction developed initially through an over-prescription of painkillers?

Responsibility is an elusive question in these cases but it seems there is plenty to go around. Mr. Sease‘s suit will put a spotlight on how much of the responsibility the doctor should bear.


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