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Legal Review: Opioid Death Leads to Doctor Liability

By criminal defense attorney Thomas Soldan, who is barred and practices in the state of Virginia, with Price Benowitz LLP. Soldan has focused his practice on reckless driving, DUI/DWI, traffic, and personal injury litigation.

An orthopedic surgeon in Manassas, Virginia, has been found civilly liable for the death of one of his patients.

Dr. Christopher Highfill was found liable for the death of Mary Jo Curtis after had prescribed Ms. Curtis over 7,000 doses of Percocet, the common brand name for oxycontin, over a four-year period.

Dr. Highfill operated on a broken ankle that Ms. Curtis suffered and continued to write weekly prescriptions for four years even though Ms. Curtis dealt with addiction issues in the past related to alcohol.

According to testimony, Dr. Highfill did not meet with Ms. Curtis a single time during the last 14 months of her life, even though he continued to write prescriptions for the narcotic.

“Doctors see dozens of patients each day and prescribe dozens of medications a day,” said Thomas Soldan, a wrongful death attorney with the law firm of Price Benowitz. “However, this verdict shows that healthcare providers cannot avoid liability in situations where basic monitoring of prescribing practices would have avoided harmful outcomes.”

“Here, the doctor clearly abdicated his duty to his client to ‘do no harm’ when he prescribed an addictive narcotic for four years to a patient with a history of addiction.”

This type of overprescribing has become one of the common themes in the current opioid crisis. Medications such as Percocet were widely viewed as better for pain treatment, even though they carried with them an increased risk of addiction and abuse.

Doctors began prescribing them as a matter of course in dealing with patient pain and injury and sometimes adequate follow up failed to take place, leading to continued refills well after the injury occurred.

Recent studies found combinations of acetaminophen and ibuprofen to be at least as effective in pain management as many opioids, if not more effective, and without any of the addictive side effects. These over-the-counter medications are beginning to experience a resurgence as effective pain treatments when administered correctly.

Opioids will continue to have a place in pain treatment, as there are stronger drugs available for the right situations. However, what the current crisis caused is a better understanding of the effects of these drugs when used long term and an effort by the medical community to identify safer and equally-effective alternatives.

What this lawsuit shows is that those healthcare providers who fail to properly monitor the patients to whom opioids have been prescribed can open themselves up to serious liability.

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