Lawsuit alleges doctor, pharmacy errors led to woman’s fentanyl patch overdose

by Jim Orr

Andrea Wells died on July 31, 2012 just five days after she began using a prescription fentanyl patch. She was 32-years-old. Wells lived in Kaneohe, Hawaii with her two children and husband, a U.S. Marine. She saw Dr. Jason Florimonte for help with chronic pain. The doctor prescribed the fentanyl patch.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is the strongest pain medication on the prescription market today – 100 times more potent than morphine. A fentanyl patch is a drug patch similar to the patch that most people are familiar with, Nicoderm. However, instead of delivering a smoking cessation drug, a fentanyl patch delivers the powerful opioid pain medication fentanyl. A patient must already be tolerant to opioids in order to be a candidate for fentanyl patch therapy.

The Wells’ family is suing Dr. Florimonte, alleging the doctor prescribed three times the typical fentanyl dose. The family has also sued the pharmacy involved, Longs Drugs, and its pharmacist, Catherine Lau, in part because the pharmacy covered over the manufacturer’s warning with its prescription label. The suit alleges the doctor and pharmacy all failed to recognize the drug and dose were not appropriate for Wells.

Fentanyl patches should not be prescribed to patients who are opioid naïve (who are not already using narcotic pain medicine) or to patients who have insufficient tolerance to opioids (whose dose of narcotic pain medicine is too low for the fentanyl dose prescribed). Prescribing fentanyl patches to patients who are opioid naïve or who have insufficient tolerance to opioids can and does kill patients by causing fatal respiratory depression. The prescribing information for the patch contains multiple “black box” warnings to physicians about this danger:

Because serious or life-threatening hypoventilation could occur, DURAGESIC® (fentanyl transdermal system) is contraindicated:

• in patients who are not opioid-tolerant

… DURAGESIC® is ONLY for use in patients who are already tolerant to opioid therapy of comparable potency. Use in non-opioid tolerant patients may lead to fatal respiratory depression. Overestimating the DURAGESIC® dose when converting patients from another opioid medication can result in fatal overdose with the first dose.

The prescribing information also includes a dose conversion guideline for doctors to use to assess a patient’s tolerance to opioids (based on the narcotic pain medicine they are already taking) and select the appropriate fentanyl dose. Sadly, far too many doctors ignore these warnings and dosage guidelines and prescribe fentanyl for patients with insufficient opioid tolerance, often with tragic results. We hear the same sad story time and time again: a patient’s doctor prescribes fentanyl for a patient who is not already on narcotic pain medicine or prescribes too high a fentanyl dose for them and the patient dies shortly thereafter.

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/fentanyl 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/fentanyl 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 depressants

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 Jim Orr

Jim Orr is a licensed attorney and a partner at HO&P focusing on business and personal injury litigation. Jim was selected multiple times to the Super Lawyers List and has tried 70+ cases to verdict.