When Floridian Beth Hippely was diagnosed with breast cancer, and needed a blood thinner to fight it, she walked into Walgreens with her prescription. A teenage, unlicensed pharmacy technician, who Walgreens had recently hired, happened to be filling prescriptions that day. She accidently gave Hippely a dosage 10 times stronger than what she had been prescribed.
The mistaken drug overdose killed Hippley, but she did not “go gently into that good night”. The medication error caused her first to suffer a cerebral hemorrhage (a “brain bleed”), which in turn caused her to become imprisoned in her own body in a condition known as “locked-in” state. She lived as a head-on-a-pillow, conscious but unable to communicate with the outside world except by using eye movements (one blink for “yes”, two for “no”). Because of her weakened condition, she was unable to undergo chemotherapy to fight her cancer, and died of it, after a long, painful struggle.
Hippley’s family (husband and three children) won a $33.3 million verdict in their prescription error wrongful death lawsuit. Walgreens appealed the jury verdict, but last month a Florida court of appeals upheld it.
Why was the Beth Hippely verdict so high? In part, I believe, it is because Walgreen’s “blame the victim” defense backfired. Instead of sucking it up and taking responsibility for its error, Walgreens’ trial strategy was to blame Beth Hippley’s physicians, and even the victim herself, for the overdose! They claimed SHE should have caught the mistake. She should have checked the prescription against the dosage she was given. In other words, she should not have trusted Walgreens, the self-proclaimed “Pharmacy America Trusts”, to do its job right!
I have blogged about this “blame the victim” defense before, and while it can sometimes work, it just as often backfires. Let’s face it; anyone can make a mistake. But the jury obviously got angry at Walgreen for failing to shoulder its responsibility, and especially for blaming boor Beth Hippely, who, by the time of trial, had succumbed to her long, unbelievably painful struggle, and had left a grieving husband and two small children behind.
Most medication errors can be avoided by simple, solid, procedures and rules for double-checking the prescriptions against the medication and dosage being given to the patient. When such procedures are put into place, and enforced, medication errors are drastically reduced. When a pharmacist or technician makes a prescription mistake, whether by giving the wrong dosage or the wrong medication, the drug store is liable not only because its employee made a mistake, but also because the pharmacy itself failed to implement proper procedures and rules for double-checking the dosage and medication.
Suing pharmacies for medication errors is the right thing to do; these lawsuits provide economic incentive for drug stores to put in place, and enforce, safe drug dispensing practices.