Jury Finds for Doctor in Fentanyl Death Case

Doctors are relying more and more on narcotic medications to treat patients’ increased complaints of chronic pain. However, while this might mean that more patients’ pain is being treated in the short-term, it has some potentially harmful long-term consequences. The longer patients remain on opiate medications, the less effective they are at treating pain, which sometimes results in the dosage increasing to potentially dangerous levels.

A recent medical malpractice lawsuit, Estate of Mary Shannon v. Dr. Timothy Sanders, et al. involved claims that the defendant physician’s negligence in prescribing a pain patch caused a patient’s death. The Grundy County lawsuit alleged that Dr. Timothy Sanders, an anesthesiologist, contributed to the decedent’s death by extending the use of her Fentanyl patch. The anesthesiologist had used the Fentanyl patch to treat the patient’s pain following a short, one-hour surgery to treat her broken hip. However, within nine hours of the surgery the patient died.

While the patient’s death was ultimately attributed to her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), an autopsy report revealed that Fentanyl intoxication significantly contributed to her death. The 71 year-old decedent had been on a Fentanyl Duragic Patch for several years prior to her death as a means of treating chronic pain caused by compression fractures in her back. Fentanyl is an opiate drug and is often not prescribed for patients with COPD because of its potential to cause respiratory problems.

The decedent’s family brought a lawsuit against the defendant anesthesiologist in which it was alleged that he should not have continued the order of the Fentanyl patch for as long as he did. Instead, the family contended it should have been removed following the surgery, arguing that its continued use was contraindicated. Furthermore, the decedent’s family was critical of the anesthesiologist prescribing the Fentanyl patch in conjunction with her warming blanket on the basis that the patch should not have been exposed to a heat source.

In response, the defendant anesthesiologist argued that the decedent’s death was not caused by an anesthesiology error. Among his arguments was the suggestion that the prolonged use of pain medication had made the decedent tolerant of opiates, such as Fentanyl. In addition, the anesthesiologist defended his decision to use the Fentanyl patch for an extended prior on the basis that her vital signs had been normal for nine hours after the surgery. Therefore, there was no clinical indication that she should not have been on the Fentanyl patch until her respiratory rate suddenly dropped to zero.

Also, the defendant’s experts argued that the autopsy report’s findings that her death was caused by Fentanyl did not match up with the clinical signs. The defense pointed out that due to her chronic disease, the decedent had a limited life expectancy of just six months to two years. In essence, the defendants’ argument was not only did the anesthesiologist not cause her death, but that the patient was not slated to live much longer anyway.

Normally, such arguments do not go over well with juries. However, the Grundy County jury seemed to favor the defendants’ argument based on it returning a not guilty verdict in favor of the anesthesiologist and his medical group. Prior to the close of the medical malpractice trial the plaintiff’s attorneys had made a $1 million demand to settle. Yet the defense seemed to have a much better pulse on the case; neither the anesthesiologist nor his practice made any offer to settle.

Estate of Mary Shannon, deceased v. Dr. Timothy Sanders, Anesthesia Consultants of Morris, LLC, 06 L 47 (Grundy County, Illinois)
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois prescription error lawsuits for individuals and families in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Palos Hills, Palatine, Flossmoor, Worth, Chicago’s Lawndale, and Winfield.

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