Addicts Can Sue Doctors for Illegal Prescriptions, West Virginia Court Says

By Paul Gaita 06/05/15

The state's supreme court ruled in favor of plaintiffs suing a notorious pill mill.

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In a 3-2 decision filed on May 13, justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs may sue doctors and pharmacies for directly causing or contributing to their addictions to prescription pain medication, even if individuals are accused of illegal conduct.

The ruling involves a case brought by 29 people against Mountain Medical Center in Williamson, a notorious “pill mill” which was shutdown by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010 for improper prescription of controlled substances.

The plaintiffs in the case had sought treatment for injuries incurred from car accidents or job-related incidents, and alleged that they became addicted to pain medication prescribed to them by four physicians and three pharmacies at the center. Most, if not all, of the plaintiffs admitted to abusing controlled substances or doctor shopping prior to visiting the facility.

In the court’s decision, Chief Justice Margaret Workman said that a plaintiff’s conduct does not prohibit them from seeking damages caused by others, and that juries should be responsible for determining which of the plaintiff’s actions contributed to the alleged injury.

“Our citizenry is best equipped to weigh and speak to our society’s tolerance for the panoply of wrongful conduct presented herein on all sides,” she wrote. Workman also noted that a law, HB2002, designed to prevent those convicted of felonies from recovering damages when the criminal conduct is part of their claim, was passed during the court’s last legislative session, but does not go into effect until March 25.

Dissenting justices Allen Loughry and Menis Ketchum noted that the court’s decision forced jurors to “immerse themselves in the sordid details of the parties’ enterprise in an attempt to determine who is the least culpable, a drug addict or his dealer."

A statement from the West Virginia Medical Association expressed concerns over the possibility that “some physicians [may] curb or stop treating pain altogether for fear of retribution, should treatment lead to patient addiction or criminal behavior. It would [also] allow criminals to potentially profit for their wrongful conduct by taking doctors and pharmacists to court.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.