The Opioid Crisis: Are Doctors Liable for Prescribing Drugs?

When the legendary musician Prince died of a drug overdose in 2016, it sent shock waves through the music community. 57 years old, in seemingly good health, and a supporter of clean living without drug use, Prince was a far cry from the usual overdose victim. The puzzling and sudden nature of his death left everyone asking the same question. How exactly did this happen?

The Opioid Crisis

In the last few years, the fatal drug epidemic in the United States has intensified. In 2016, 116 people died every day from drug overdoses. The victims are diverse, covering a wide array of ages and economic backgrounds. The cause of most of these overdoses is opioids.

A family of narcotic medications that reduce pain, opioids commonly serve as prescription painkillers. They are commonly used to treat pain caused by surgery, accidents, or degenerative conditions. The most common types of opioids include:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone

While opioids can help a patient cope with pain, they are also highly addictive. When someone takes a drug for a medical purpose, it is very easy for them to become dependent on it. As the body becomes addicted to a substance, the person begins to build up a tolerance. This means that they will have to take greater amounts in order to feel the effect.

For many people, opioid addiction begins when they are legally receive a drug or medication. If someone develops an addiction or dies from an overdose on a prescription drug, is their doctor liable?

Does a Prescription Mean Malpractice?

The fact that a doctor prescribes a drug does not automatically make them liable for a patient’s injuries. Many doctors prescribe opioids after everyday procedures like wisdom teeth removal or back surgery. They do so with the intention to help a patient manage their pain during recovery. A professional doctor will take a patient’s health and background into consideration when prescribing medications. They consider factors like height and weight, other medications, or previous medical conditions, including a history of substance abuse. If they consider these factors, prescribe a limited supply, and are clear with their instructions toward the patient, a doctor can safely and responsibility help a patient manage their pain with drugs like oxycodone and fentanyl.

However, there are some circumstances where a doctor’s actions could directly lead to a patient’s harm. For example, if a doctor accidentally gives a patient a stronger dosage than necessary, the higher dose could cause a greater risk of overdose and other adverse effects. They could also cause harm by prescribing the wrong medication, prescribing a medication that negatively interacts with other medications, or failing to clearly instruct the patient on how to take the medication. All these things, even if done through simple error, may be medical malpractice because they breach a doctor’s duty to care for their patient.

Proving Malpractice for Drug Overdoses

If it is shown that a doctor’s actions directly led to a patient’s harm, then the doctor may be liable. However, due to the many other factors that can play into a medication-related incident, like previous health conditions or other medication usage, it can be a complex thing to determine.

While the details of his death are still coming to light, it sounds like Prince was one of the many drug victims who legally received drugs from a doctor. His doctor, who apparently prescribed medications to Prince under a different name, was not charged with a crime. However, he was punished with a fine. For his family and fans, seeing his doctor held responsible for his reckless behavior is likely very satisfying.

With the drug crisis still at a dangerous peak, liability debates over addictions and overdoses are likely to continue to appear in the news. But as cases like Prince’s bring more attention to the dangers of doctor negligence and prescription drugs, hopefully we will finally start to see a decline in drug-related deaths.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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