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When Are Punitive Damages Appropriate in Virginia Medical Malpractice Lawsuits?

Most Virginia residents trust their doctors, and for good reason. Doctors are highly-trained medical professionals and, generally, do a great job taking care of patients. However, doctors are still human and sometimes make mistakes or are careless, which can result in significant harm to patients. When these mistakes do happen, Virginia state law allows those who are injured to file a medical malpractice lawsuit against the responsible doctor. If successful, these suits can result in financial recovery for the victim to cover pain and suffering, lost wages, past and future medical expenses, and other losses they suffered.

The purpose of these lawsuits is generally not to punish the doctor but rather to help the victim recover. Because of this, punitive damages are rarely available. Punitive damages are additional monetary damages that may be awarded to the plaintiff that serve not to make the plaintiff whole and help them recover, but to punish and deter the doctor’s behavior. Because this is not the purpose of medical malpractice lawsuits, these damages are reserved for rare cases when the doctor’s conduct was extremely egregious and in disregard of the patient.

Recently, a Virginia court discussed punitive damages in a medical malpractice case. According to the court’s written opinion, the patient broke her ankle in March of 2011, and was treated by the defendant, a doctor. The patient required surgery, and after the surgery, the doctor prescribed her Percocet, a drug consisting of acetaminophen and oxycodone, a controlled narcotic substance. The patient had a history of bipolar disorder and alcohol use, so she was at an increased risk of developing an addiction to narcotic pain medication, but the doctor continued to prescribe her Percocet. He never attempted to treat her with non-narcotic pain medication.

Each week, the patient would call for a refill, and the doctor would write one. In March of 2014, a staff member wrote the doctor a note saying that the patient had not been examined for almost a year, but the doctor continued to write the prescription. Throughout the course the patient’s treatment—a little over three years—the doctor prescribed over 7,000 Percocet pills. Her last prescription was picked up on June 19, 2014, and the patient was found dead in her home two days later. Her autopsy revealed that the cause of death was an accidental overdose of oxycodone, alcohol, and other prescription medications.

The plaintiff’s estate filed a wrongful death action against the doctor, alleging that the doctor breached the standard of care and that the patient became addicted, overdosed, and died as a result. In addition to the typical damages, the estate requested punitive damages. The doctor moved to strike this request, which was granted by the court. On appeal, however, this grant was overturned. The appellate court, analyzing the standard of punitive damages in Virginia, found that the doctor’s conduct amounted to willful and wanton negligence, which evidenced a conscious disregard for the patient’s safety. Even if the doctor did not intend for the patient to become addicted and overdose, he could still be held responsible because he was reckless in prescribing without examining her for signs of addiction. As such, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could order him to pay punitive damages, and so the case was remanded.

Have You Been Injured By a Medical Professional?

If you or a loved one have been injured in a medical setting, you may be able to file a medical malpractice suit to recover for your injuries. Contact Robinson Law Firm to discuss your case risk-free with one of our dedicated Virginia wrongful death attorneys today. Our attorneys have helped countless clients recover full and fair compensation for the injuries they sustained. Call 703-649-4500 today to schedule a free consultation.

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