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Can I Sue My Doctor for Opiate Addiction?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

You can sue your doctor if you become addicted to opiates -- commonly known as pain killers. But only if your doctor was negligent in prescribing the pills.

Physicians owe their patients a certain standard of care. If they fall below it and patients are harmed, doctors are liable. This applies to prescriptions, just like any other aspect of treatment. Medicine is not a perfect or precise science, however, and not everything that goes wrong is due to negligence.

Proving Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice is negligence in healthcare. In an opiate addiction matter, you have to show that something about your doctor's drug prescription -- the dosage, the type of drug, failure to notice your developing addiction -- was a breach of the duty of care that was due to you as a patient. The same might also apply to your pharmacist and the institutions associated with your physician and pharmacist.

All negligence cases have four elements that must be proven: duty, breach, causation, and harm (sometimes called damages). Failure to prove any one category will result in a lost claim. Put together, the elements add up to a complete claim.

So, to prove negligence you must show the following:

Your physician owed you a duty of care and breached that duty by failing to exercise reasonable care. This failure to exercise care, or the breach, caused you harm. The harm refers to an actual injury and to compensability, meaning that there are monetary or injunctive damages arising from the harm that you suffered.

Reasonable Care in Prescribing Medication

It will be impossible for anyone to determine whether your drug addiction was caused by your doctor's failure to exercise reasonable care without a detailed discussion of your history and an analysis of medical records. But here are a couple of examples that may help you understand what your lawyer will look for.

Let's say you saw a doctor for an injury and he prescribed an opiate-based medication for the pain. You are a recovering drug addict and you didn't tell the doctor anything about it but within a week are popping pills uncontrollably. That is probably not negligence, as a physician cannot be expected to guess that you were previously addicted and you should have spoken up.

But if you did tell your doctor that you are a recovering addict and your particular injury is easily treated with alternatives like physical therapy, then the doctor is more likely to be found negligent in that situation.

The difference between the two circumstances above is substantial, even if it seems slight. In the first example, the doctor is acting based on the information available and your addictive response seems unusual. In the second example, where the doctor ignores your explicit warning, the physician would be irresponsible to prescribe pain pills to an admitted recovering addict, especially where alternative treatments are available.

Consult With Counsel

Medical malpractice cases are very complex. Your lawyer will need to look at your medical records and history, communications between you and your doctor, standard treatments for your ailments, and alternatives. These cases can also take time to prove.

But time is short. States have different statutes of limitation for filing medical malpractice claims, which means you will lose your opportunity to file suit if you sit on it too long.

Do not try to decide on your own whether you have a valid claim. Consult with an attorney as soon as possible and let the experts determine whether it's worth going after your doctor for negligence in prescribing medication.

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