lawsuit against va hospital raises interesting legal question about liability and medications

A recently filed lawsuit in U.S. District Court raises a rather fascinating legal question concerning liability for medication errors: Can a hospital be held liable when its physicians prescribe large amounts of a drug that a patient eventually uses to commit suicide?

The case in question involves identical twin sisters — we’ll call them Darla and Kelli — and a certain VA Medical Center.

Here, the two women, both natives of Pittsburgh, joined the Navy together in the early ’90s and enjoyed a successful career that officially ended with their retirement in 1997. However, just prior to retirement, Kelli developed post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic migraine headaches after enduring a rather frightening home invasion while stationed in Italy.

Unfortunately, Kelli’s condition worsened considerably over the next 13 years, leading to the development of paranoia, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Her medical records indicate that during this time, she received treatment from at least 12 different physicians at the VA and was prescribed upwards of 25 different drugs, including the antipsychotic drug Seroquel.

In the spring of 2010, Kelli unsuccessfully attempted suicide on three separate occasions by ingesting large amounts of Seroquel. Sadly, she was successful in her efforts in October 2010.

According to court records, Kelli contacted her then-treating physician at the VA and informed him that she was planning to visit her mother in Pittsburgh and wouldn’t have enough Seroquel to cover her planned visit. The doctor then honored her request and wrote her a two-month prescription for the drug as opposed to the usual one month.

After learning that the Seroquel was being mailed to her home, Kelli contacted the same physician, and told him that she was leaving and couldn’t wait for the drugs to arrive by mail. The doctor then proceeded to write her another two-month prescription that she promptly filled.

Sadly, Kelli died soon thereafter, having ingested a substantial number of pills — nearly four months’ worth.

Her twin sister Darla’s federal lawsuit against the VA is seeking approximately $5 million in damages. Here, she is claiming that the hospital was negligent in continuing to prescribe her sister large amounts of Seroquel despite three failed suicide attempts and that this negligence caused her tragic death.

For its part, the government is arguing that Seroquel is not an especially dangerous drug and that the drug had proven effective in Kelli’s treatment. Curiously, it asserts that the risks posed by Kelli’s running out of the drug were greater than those posed by her previous suicide attempts.

The case is currently scheduled for trial in April 2013. It should certainly be interesting to see how this transpires. …

Remember if you feel that a medication error has played a role in the death or serious injury of someone in your family, you can fight for the justice that both you and your loved one deserve.

Source: The Virginian-Pilot, “After Navy vet’s suicide, sister sues VA hospital,” Bill Sizemore, Nov. 13, 2012

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