April 17, 2012

Earlier this month, a medical malpractice jury in Maine deliberated for less than two hours before unanimously awarding a woman compensatory damages in the amount of $1,912,934 for her alleged brain damage caused by her doctor over-prescribing methadone that resulted in her experiencing an episode of slow and shallow breathing during the night which deprived her of oxygen. The woman had been taking the prescribed methadone for only two and half days before she suffered her injuries.

The woman had been living with chronic back pain for which her primary care physician referred her in August, 2006 to a family practice specialist for treatment of her chronic pain. The medical malpractice claim alleged that the woman had been given a prescription for methadone by the family practice specialist at a dose eight times the recommended dosage.

The medical malpractice defendant argued to the medical malpractice jury that the woman had failed to mention to the pharmacist at the time she filled her prescription for methadone that she had pre-existing breathing problems and sleep apnea. The defense also argued that the 40 mg dose prescribed for the woman was within an appropriate range and that the pharmacy’s computerized system for warning of complications, side effects, or other problems with the prescription did not indicate a problem with the dosage prescribed for the woman and that the pharmacist who filled the prescription had called to confirm the prescription and did not indicate any problem with the prescription.

The medical malpractice defendant’s attorney also argued to the jury that the woman never intended to return to her job with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, where she had worked for 18 years, and therefore her claim for lost wages should not be awarded by the medical malpractice jury. And while the medical malpractice plaintiff claimed her alleged brain damage affected her ability to perform simple tasks and to multitask at work, the medical malpractice defendant argued that the woman’s family did not notice any changes in the woman’s demeanor or behavior during the two and a half days the woman was taking the methadone before the incident.


Many people associate methadone with its use in treating heroin addicts (opiate addiction). However, methadone is also used to treat moderate to severe pain that has not been relieved by use of non-narcotic pain relievers.

Methadone is a narcotic analgesic that treats pain by changing the way the brain and nervous system responds to pain (methadone is used to treat abusers of opiate drugs by producing similar effects while preventing withdrawal symptoms when the abused drugs are stopped).

The official “warnings” regarding use of methadone include the following: “Methadone may cause slowed breathing and irregular heartbeat, which may be life-threatening. If you experience any of the following symptoms, call your doctor immediately: difficulty breathing; extreme drowsiness; slow, shallow breathing; fast, slow, pounding, or irregular heartbeat; faintness; severe dizziness; or confusion.

The risk that you will experience serious or life-threatening side effects of methadone is greatest when you first start taking methadone, when you switch from another narcotic medication to methadone and when your doctor increases your dose of methadone. Your doctor may start you on a low dose of methadone and gradually increase your dose. Your doctor will monitor you closely during this time.”


The standard of care requires physicians and other health care providers with the authority to prescribe medications to use that degree of care and skill that similarly situated medical providers would use under similar circumstances. Sometimes a questionable or unusual prescription is flagged by the filling pharmacist when the pharmacy’s computer system provides a warning regarding the information about the prescription entered into the computer system. When that happens, the pharmacist may use his/her knowledge, education, and experience in responding to the computer’s warning, which may range from disregarding the warning as unwarranted to not filling the prescription and speaking with the prescriber regarding the pharmacist’s concerns.

While a pharmacist may also be held responsible for filling a prescription in a manner that violates the pharmacist’s standard of care, the prescribing health care provider remains liable under most circumstances and cannot rely on and expect to be excused of the health care provider’s own negligence by the subsequent negligence of the pharmacist.

If you or loved one have been injured or suffered losses as a result of a prescription medication or an over-the-counter medication, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries, pain, and other losses. The prompt advice of a medical malpractice attorney may be essential in protecting your legal rights and obtaining fair compensation.

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