Accidental morphine overdose at New York nursing home results in $1.5 million wrongful death verdict

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by Jim Orr

In 2011, John Solari was a nursing home resident in Plattsburgh at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital Medical Center Skilled Nursing Facility. A nurse at the facility mistakenly gave him a dose of morphine that was intended for another resident, according to evidence recently presented during a Clinton County, New York jury trial of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Solari’s estate. Solari died three days later as a result of complications from this accidental morphine overdose.

The nurse, who was not usually assigned to the nursing home floor of the hospital, fed Solari the medication mixed with his applesauce after mistaking him for another patient. The nurse testified there was no name on Solari’s wrist band and that he indicated he was “Floyd,” the patient who was supposed to get the morphine. The 94-year-old Solari suffered from dementia and respiratory issues.

Following a four-day trial, the Clinton County jury found in favor of Solari’s estate and against the facility. The jury awarded $200,000 for compensatory damages, $500,000 under a Public Health Law claim, and $800,000 in punitive damages. The Public Health Law claim alleged that Solari was denied a “right” to be free of medication errors, a right that is guaranteed to nursing home residents by state regulations.

New York Public Health Law 2801-d and Nursing Home Lawsuits

As the Solari jury verdict illustrates, New York Public Health Law § 2801–d provides valuable rights for nursing home residents and their families. Under New York Public Health Law § 2801–d, “[a]ny residential health care facility that deprives any patient … of any right or benefit, as hereinafter defined, shall be liable to said patient for injuries suffered as a result …” The law defines a “right or benefit” of a patient broadly to mean “any right or benefit created or established for the well-being of the patient by the terms of any contract, by any state statute, code, rule or regulation or by any applicable federal statute, code, rule or regulation …” Id. “Injury” is also broadly defined to “include, but not be limited to, physical harm to a patient; emotional harm to a patient; death of a patient; and financial loss to a patient.” Id.

If a patient has been deprived of a right or benefit and the facility fails to establish that it “exercised all care reasonably necessary to prevent and limit the deprivation and injury to the patient,” the law provides that “compensatory damages shall be assessed in an amount sufficient to compensate such patient for such injury, but in no event less than twenty-five percent” of the daily average cost at the nursing home “for each day that such injury exists.” Additionally, if the facility is found to have acted willfully or with reckless disregard of the patient’s rights, punitive damages may be assessed.

Claims under the Public Health Law are in addition to any of their claims—such as a medical malpractice claim for professional negligence—the patient may have against the facility. The law also provides that the court hearing the case may “if justice requires, award attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff based on the reasonable value of legal services rendered and payable by the defendant.”

The epidemic of prescription painkiller deaths

Drug deaths in America now outnumber traffic fatalities. Overdoses of prescription painkillers (opioid or narcotic pain relievers) have more than tripled in the past 20 years, killing more than 15,500 people in the United States in 2009 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Prescription drugs linked to causing the most deaths include:

  • Opioids (painkiller) such hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin) and fentanyl (Duragesic) patches
  • Benzodiazepines (central nervous system depressants used to induce sleep and treat anxiety) such as Alprazolam (Xanax), Diazepam (Valium)
  • Amphetamines (central nervous system stimulants used to treat ADHD and similar disorders) such as Adderal, Ridalin, and Concentra

Since 1999, there has been a 300% increase in the prescription and sale of opioid painkillers. These drugs now account for more deaths each year than cocaine and heroine combined.

Unfortunately, sometimes doctors prescribe too many of these powerful painkillers, prescribe them in dosages that are too high, or prescribe them with other drugs that can cause dangerous drug interactions. Other times, as in the Solari case, the wrong drug is given to the wrong patient.

Heygood, Orr & Pearson fights for victims of prescription drug overdoses

If you or a loved one has been the victim of overdose caused by opioid painkillers, the manufacturer of the drug—or the doctor or hospital who prescribed them—may be to blame. Many doctors who prescribe opioid painkillers to patients have little to no experience with pain management. As a result, they may prescribe drugs that are too powerful or in doses that exceed what a patient requires. Sadly, many of these physician errors lead to addictions, overdoses, or deaths that could have been prevented.

Heygood, Orr & Pearson has represented numerous patients who have suffered complications from excessive painkiller prescriptions by a doctor or hospital. The lawyers at our firm have handled more cases involving the powerful fentanyl pain patch than all other law firms in the country combined.

Our partners—Michael Heygood, Eric Pearson, and myself—have each been selected by their peers as Super Lawyers in the state of Texas* for several years in a row. Our firm has also been given the highest possible rating for law firms by the nation’s leading law firm rating service, Martindale-Hubbell.

For more information about an opioid painkiller lawsuit and to find out if you qualify to file a case, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001. You can also reach us by following the link to our free case evaluation form located on this site.

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* Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2014.