Prescription Overdose: Negligence Is Not Enough

Although commonly referred to as a “negligence claim,” there are four elements required to prevail on a personal injury claim of negligence – duty, breach, cause, and harm. The first two elements combine to form what is known as “negligence.” A plaintiff must first establish that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, and further that the defendant breached that duty through an act or omission. However, such negligence, no matter how glaring, is never enough to prove a case. A plaintiff must also show that the negligence caused identifiable harm. Damages are often straightforward, although at times difficult to quantify. After all, without some damage a plaintiff would have no reason to sue. In contrast, establishing that the injury alleged was caused by a defendant’s negligence is often not readily apparent and must be proved through medical opinion, evidence of treating physicians, or experts. Without all four elements, a plaintiff has no legal claim.

In a recent case from the Federal District Court of Massachusetts, a plaintiff presented clear and unassailable evidence of negligence – a pharmacy had dispensed a dosage of medication that was ten times higher than the amount prescribed. The plaintiff further alleged that as a result of the pharmacy’s negligence, he overdosed on the medication and suffered physical and mental injuries, including kidney failure. Despite the overwhelming and irrefutable evidence of the pharmacy’s mistake, shortly prior to trial, the defendant filed for summary judgment on the issue of causation arguing that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the plaintiff could not establish the element of causation without expert opinion evidence that the alleged overdose of the medication caused the plaintiff’s personal injuries.

In awarding summary judgment to the defendant pharmacy, the trial court judge found that the average juror is not equipped to understand how a particular dosage of prescription medication may affect the human body, and the plaintiff was required to present expert testimony explaining those effects and establishing a causal link between the medication overdose and the injuries allegedly sustained. The judge also noted that the expert testimony was particularly important in the case before the court where the pharmacy strongly disputed causation, contending that many of the plaintiff’s health conditions either pre-existed the overdose, or were caused by other factors. The judge noted that the plaintiff failed to produce any expert opinion despite numerous opportunities to do so, and concluded that in the absence of any expert opinion on the element of specific causation, the plaintiff could not prove his negligence claim at trial.


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