Jury awards $2.25 million verdict against New Mexico hospital over woman’s fentanyl patch death

by Eric Pearson

A jury has awarded a $2.25 million verdict to the family of Mercedes Christopherson, a New Mexico woman who died in 2008 of a fentanyl overdose. The lawsuit accused the hospital where Christopherson was treated for pancreatitis of improperly prescribing the fentanyl pain patch to her despite the fact that she had a high fever and other symptoms at the time she was discharged.

In 2008, Christopherson was a 20 year-old waitress at Applebee’s and had aspirations to become a nurse. She went to an emergency room at Christus St. Vincent in Santa Fe, New Mexico, complaining of severe stomach pains. She was diagnosed with pancreatitis and transferred to another hospital, where she remained for a week. Four days after being discharged, she returned to Christus St. Vincent complaining of increased abdominal pain.

This time, she was treated with antibiotics for five days and remained at Christus St. Vincent for another week, suffering off and on from a fever. On December 8, the day she was discharged, Christopherson’s oxygen-saturation levels had allegedly dipped as low as 48 percent.

When she was discharged, the hospital did not prescribe any ongoing antibiotics for Christopherson, despite the fact that she had tested positive for an inter-abdominal infection, according to allegations made in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by her father. Christopherson was, however, given a narcotic fentanyl pain-relief patch. Such a patch can be dangerous for people suffering from a fever because the fever may increase the effects of the narcotics by up to 30 percent. The fentanyl patch was especially problematic in these circumstances, according to the lawsuit, given that such narcotics have a depressive effect on the respiratory system and Christopherson was already suffering from low oxygen levels.

Less than 18 hours after being discharged, Christopherson was found unconscious and not breathing at a friend’s home. Despite efforts to resuscitate her, she died. Her cause of death was listed as septicemia, according to court documents, an infection in the blood.

Christopherson’s family originally filed the wrongful death lawsuit in 2009. A jury found the hospital negligent in that case but couldn’t agree on whether the negligence had caused the woman’s death. A new trial was ordered, and the second jury returned a verdict in favor of the hospital. However, the judge ordered a third trial because of misconduct during the second trial by one of the hospital’s defense attorneys, William Slattery. The judge wrote in his order that Slattery had asked improper questions and made numerous improper objections and “gratuitous comments,” which were audible throughout the courtroom, “despite having been warned a number of times at bench conferences and outside the presence of the jury about his demeanor.”

Following a third trial, a Santa Fe jury has now ordered Christus St. Vincent to pay the Christopherson’s family $2.25 million. The jury’s award includes $1 million for the loss of Christopherson’s life and another $1.25 million for her father’s “loss of consortium” with his daughter. The hospital said it plans to appeal the verdict, saying in a statement: “We believe we committed no wrongdoing.”

Fentanyl Patch Litigation at Heygood, Orr & Pearson

Heygood, Orr & Pearson has successfully prosecuted more cases involving deaths due to fentanyl products than all the other firms in the country combined. We have spent years studying fentanyl, its uses and its misuses. We have deposed hundreds of doctors, scientists and experts on the subject of fentanyl products.

In the very first jury trial by the lawyers of Heygood, Orr & Pearson against makers of a fentanyl transdermal pain patch, a Florida jury awarded a $5.5 million verdict to the family of a man who died while wearing a Duragesic pain patch. More recently, Heygood, Orr & Pearson obtained a $16 million verdict for the family of a Cicero, Illinois woman who died while wearing a Duragesic pain patch. That verdict was upheld on appeal, resulting in a payment of more than $21 million.

Fatal mistakes that our firm has seen doctors commit in prescribing fentanyl patches include:

  • Overestimating the initial dose of fentanyl patches
  • Prescribing them for acute or post operative pain
  • Prescribing fentanyl patches to opioid naïve patients
  • Prescribing fentanyl patches to patients with significant pulmonary problems
  • Prescribing fentanyl patches at the same time as other CNS depressant medications

If you or a loved one has experienced the tragedy of losing a family member as a result of fentanyl pain patch usage, you and your family deserve answers to your questions. If the loss was as a result of a prescribing error, you have the right to demand that the responsible healthcare provider be held accountable. Contact us for a free consultation so we can help you determine the best way to protect your legal rights and interests.

To receive a free legal consultation and find out if you are eligible to file a case, please call our toll-free number at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out our free case evaluation form.

by Eric Pearson

Eric Pearson is a licensed attorney and a partner at HO&P who handles commercial and personal injury lawsuits. Eric has been selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication.