Pharmaceutical Errors

Pharmaceutical mistakes cause more than one million serious injuries or deaths in the United States each year. Pharmaceutical errors are generally preventable, and they can result in a type of medical malpractice lawsuit. A pharmaceutical error can happen at any point in the prescription process from the time the medication is picked to the time the medication is dispensed. Most often, the error is by a nurse or doctor, but at times a pharmacist makes a mistake in filling or dispensing the prescription. Some errors happen at retail chain drug stores and prescription mail order houses.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews medication error reports from drug manufacturers and MedWatch. According to the FDA, the most common error resulting in a fatality was the administration of an improper dose of medicine. These accounted for 41% of fatal medication errors, whereas giving the wrong drug or using an improper type of administration resulted in 16% of medication errors.

Preventing Pharmaceutical Errors

It is important for patients to pay close attention to what their doctor or pharmacist tells them about the drug they are taking, the correct dosage, and any dangerous side effects. A patient should ask questions if there is any aspect of the instructions that he or she does not understand. Patients should tell doctors the names of all prescription drugs, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, and herbal or vitamin supplements they are taking to avoid potentially dangerous interactions between pharmaceuticals.

The Division of Medication Error Prevention and Analysis (DMEPA) reviews reports of medication errors, defined as any preventable event that could lead to inappropriate medication use or patient harm. The error may arise when the wrong pharmaceutical or the wrong dose is prescribed or instructed on the label, or when the pharmaceutical interacts improperly with other drugs.

Can You Recover Damages for Medication Errors?

A bad reaction to a medication is not necessarily a pharmaceutical error. Instead, the error must be preventable to be actionable. A pharmaceutical error must also be the actual and proximate cause of a real injury to be actionable. A patient cannot sue for a pharmaceutical error that does not result in any actual harm.

Doctors must understand their patients’ conditions in order to avoid complications or dangerous drug interactions. A doctor owes a duty to advise a patient of any drug risks so that an informed decision can be made. When a doctor fails to relay a warning to a patient, he or she will have responsibility for the error. Similarly, a doctor can also be held liable for prescribing the wrong medication, prescribing the wrong dose, or failing to notice that a patient has an allergy to an ingredient in the medication.

A patient who suffers an injury from a pharmaceutical error also can bring a medical malpractice case against a nurse, pharmacist, or hospital that makes a mistake in filling or dispensing the medication. When a pharmacist gives the wrong instructions to a patient, dispenses the wrong medication, or mixes medications that should not be mixed, he or she also can be held liable for malpractice.

Among the damages that a plaintiff may recover are past and future medical expenses, lost earnings, loss of enjoyment, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium. Depending on the state, a plaintiff's noneconomic damages may be capped by tort reform laws. If a patient dies due to a pharmaceutical error, his or her loved ones may be able to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit.