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Pharmacy Faces Lawsuit Over Fatal Prescription Drug Interaction

As we get older, it seems we need to take more and more prescription medications just to get through the day. We trust our doctors and pharmacists to ensure that these drugs are safe–not just on their own, but also when taken in combination with one another. But when this trust fails, and the patient suffers, who can be held legally responsible?

Allen v. The Kroger Company

A case now pending before a federal judge in Macon raises this exact question. The plaintiff is the mother of a woman who died after taking a combination of amitriptyline, a medication used to treat various types of mental illness, and morphine. According to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, her daughter had prescriptions for both medications, which were filled at the defendant’s pharmacy six days apart.

The plaintiff maintains the defendant “knew or should have known that morphine and amitriptyline are fatal when mixed,” and that it therefore had a legal duty to warn her daughter of the risk of taking both drugs together. The defendant argued to the contrary–that no such duty exists under Georgia or federal law with respect to pharmacies. The defense therefore moved to dismiss the complaint.

U.S. District Judge Tilman E. Self, III, largely denied the motion. He did agree with the defense that a specific federal law cited by the plaintiff–a 1990 congressional act that required states to adopt certain pharmaceutical care standards–did not create a private right to sue. That said, the plaintiff’s lawsuit also relies on Georgia common and statutory law, and here Judge Self said there was a plausible allegation against the defendant.

For example, under Georgia State Board of Pharmacy regulations, a pharmacist is required to “review the patient record and each prescription drug order presented for dispensing for the purposes of promoting therapeutic appropriateness by identifying … drug-drug interactions.” If there is a potential issue, the pharmacist must “take appropriate steps to avoid or resolve the situation or problem.” In other words, under Georgia law the defendant clearly did owe a duty to the victim to monitor her drug interactions.

More to the point, the plaintiff’s lawsuit alleges the defendant not only failed to monitor the victim’s drug history, it failed “to create guidelines to ensure that prescriptions do not have adverse reactions, and to act accordingly by either warning [the victim] or her physicians or refusing to dispense the medication.” While Judge Self did not address the merits of these claims, he did find that they “plausibly” alleged a valid legal complaint against the defendant.

As a final matter, Judge Self also rejected the defense’s effort to dismiss the case over the plaintiff’s purported failure to provide an “expert affidavit” in support of her claims. Georgia law typically requires such affidavits as a pre-condition of filing a lawsuit. But since this case is in federal court, Judge Self said federal procedural rules applied–and the federal rules do not require such affidavits.