Law & Medicine

Physician liability in opioid deaths


Question: Regarding opioid deaths, which of the following is incorrect?

A. The term refers to accidental or intentional deaths caused mostly by heroin.

B. They are reaching epidemic proportions.

C. May form the basis for a wrongful death lawsuit.

D. May lead to loss of medical license.

E. The physician may face prosecution for homicide.

Answer: A. Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, as well as prescription drugs such as fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine. To be sure, opioid deaths occur in addicts from the deliberate or accidental use of heroin; but other opioids, especially painkillers, are also widely implicated. In addition, deaths have resulted from the careless, negligent, reckless, or wanton conduct of doctors who prescribe them without the proper indications or in inappropriate amounts, and then fail to provide careful follow-up.

Physicians may face both civil and criminal liabilities in such a situation. One remedy sought in wrongful death is a civil action, i.e., a malpractice lawsuit against the negligent doctor. The plaintiff is asserting that by violating community professional standards, the physician’s substandard conduct breached his duty of due care and was a proximate cause of the patient’s death. The evidentiary proof that is required to sustain such an allegation is “more probable than not” or “preponderance of evidence,” and expert medical testimony is typically necessary to establish the requisite standard of care and causation. Where there is gross negligence, i.e., egregious conduct that was reckless, the jury may award punitive damages.

Not infrequently, the wayward doctor faces triple liability: a civil lawsuit, state medical board action, and criminal prosecution for homicide. Given the publicity over soaring opioid death rates, one can expect aggressive prosecution of dealers and doctors alike.

Dr. S.Y. Tan, emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Recently, an Oklahoma doctor was charged with second-degree murder in the overdose deaths of at least five patients from prescription painkillers and other drugs.1 The doctor had prescribed more than 3 million doses over a 5-year-period. In 2010, she had prescribed for a 47-year-old patient a total of 450 painkillers, muscle relaxants, and antianxiety drugs – the so-called addict’s holy trinity. The patient died 6 days later.

This was not the first such case in Oklahoma. In 2014, a 71-year-old pain management doctor pleaded guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder in connection with several drug overdose deaths and will serve 8 years in prison. The doctor had reportedly prescribed more controlled drugs than any other physician in the state of Oklahoma. These drugs included hydrocodone, oxycodone, alprazolam, diazepam (Valium), and carisoprodol (Soma) – as many as 600 pills at a time. He allegedly accepted only cash payment for the office visits, and a review of his patient files revealed inadequate assessment of patient complaints or physical findings to justify the prescriptions.

Other states have been equally aggressive in prosecuting doctors over opioid deaths from reckless prescribing habits.

For the first time, New York in 2014 convicted a doctor of manslaughter in the overdose deaths of patients from oxycodone and alprazolam (Xanax). Some of the patients were prescribed as many as 500-800 pills over a 5- to 6-week period. The defendant, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, allegedly saw upward of 90 patients a day in his Queens weekend storefront clinic, charging them on a per-prescription basis. In his defense, he claimed that he was simply trying to help suffering people who misused medications and who misled him (“tough patients and good liars”).

Likewise, a Los Angeles–area doctor was recently convicted of second-degree murder for prescribing painkillers that killed three patients, and he was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both drug overdose and opioid-involved deaths continue to increase in the United States.2 The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than 6 out of 10) involve an opioid, and the number has quadrupled since 1999.2 It has been estimated that more than 18,000 overdose deaths in 2014 involved prescription painkillers, while an additional 10,000 fatalities were attributed to heroin and 5,000 to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Overdose deaths exceed motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of injury-related deaths. About 90 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, and opioids have been forecast to kill 500,000 Americans over the next decade.

The CDC acknowledges that prescription opioids are a driving factor, noting that since 1999, the amount sold in the United States has nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report.

States such as Missouri, faced with the skyrocketing cost of treating the opioid epidemic, have sued the drug manufacturers, blaming them for their “campaign of fraud and deception.” At the same time, doctors have been deemed the “biggest culprit” for the opioid addiction epidemic, and one author has pointedly asserted that “by refusing to accept their inability to separate pain relief from addiction, physicians have long suffered the sin of hubris – and their patients have paid the price.”3

The U.S. Surgeon General recently took the historic step of writing to all American doctors asking for their help. And the American Medical Association has developed an educational module explaining the epidemic and how opioid misuse is linked to heroin addiction. The module also outlines risk-reducing steps when using opioids for pain relief.4

Dr. Tan is emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. Some of the materials here have appeared in previous columns by the author. This article is meant to be educational and does not constitute medical, ethical, or legal advice. For additional information, readers may contact the author at


1. Available at Accessed June 28, 2017.

2. Available at Accessed June 28, 2017.

3. Available at Accessed June 27, 2017.

4. Accessed July 5, 2017.

Next Article: