Alabama Court: Pharmacy Error Lawsuit Didn’t Require Expert Witness

The Alabama Supreme Court recently sided with a plaintiff seeking damages against a grocery store pharmacy for injuries she suffered after she was given the wrong prescription.
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Defense counsel in Morgan v. Publix Super Markets Inc. argued in their motion for summary judgment before the Jefferson Circuit Court that the plaintiff failed to make her case because she hadn’t produced an expert witness that would have established a breach of the applicable standard of care under the Alabama Medical Liability Act.

However, in reversing the trial court’s earlier decision to grant that motion, the Alabama Supreme Court found that a pharmacy’s negligence in dispensing the wrong medication is so straightforward that the plaintiff didn’t need the testimony of an expert witness to prove it.

That doesn’t mean the plaintiff has won the case, but she will be afforded the opportunity to have her day in court.

While the testimony of experts and field professionals in cases of medical malpractice in Alabama can be highly valuable, the court backed away from any requirement to prove something as apparent as the fact that a wrongly-filled prescription can cause a patient serious harm.

Many tend to think of malpractice cases as involving surgeons, doctors and nurses. But pharmacists also play an important role in ensuring patients receive the proper care. These are highly-educated, licensed professionals whom we expect to adhere to the highest standards of care. A single pharmacological mistake or oversight can cause irreparable and even fatal injury.

In the Morgan case, the plaintiff was a patient at a grocery store pharmacy in Trussville. In late 2010, she went to the store to have her prescription filled for amlodipine, which is a medicine that is used for the treatment of hypertension. For several years, the patient had used this pharmacy without incident, and trusted that this time would be no different.

However, the pharmacist who filled her prescription this time gave her not just amlodipine, but instead a mix of that and another drug called furosemide, primarily used to treat heart or liver disease. Both of these pills were similar in size, shape and color, so the patient did not recognize a difference.

She continued to ingest the pills over the course of two weeks, during which time she experienced a combination of hives, swelling, tingling lips, painful scales and redness around her eyes and mouth. The patient, believing she was experiencing some type of allergic reaction, self-medicated with over-the-counter Benadryl.

She later returned to the pharmacy to have her amlopidine prescription refilled. It as at this time that the pharmacy manager notified her that she had accidentally been given furosemide during her last visit. This was confirmed with an analysis of the remaining pills still in the bottle.

While the hives and tingling receded fairly quickly, the redness and scales took about one year to dissipate.

She subsequently filed a lawsuit, alleging the pharmacy had been negligent in its issuance of the wrong medication. Publix responded with a denial of responsibility, and further asserted that her claim fell under the purview of the Alabama Medical Liability Act.

Following discovery in the case, Publix requested a summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff had failed to produce an expert witness who could prove a violation of the applicable standard of care under the AMLA. The trial court granted Publix’s motion.

The plaintiff appealed in February of this year, arguing that the trial court erred because in this case was so straightforward that a layperson could understand it without testimony from a licensed expert.

The state supreme court agreed, while further asserting that the claim does fall under AMLA.

Cases that fall under the AMLA require the plaintiff to assume a higher burden of proof. He or she must:

  • Establish the appropriate standard of care;
  • Prove that the health care provider deviated from that standard;
  • That there is a proximate causal connection between the health care provider’s act or omission and and the injury sustained by the plaintiff.

Additional Resources:

Morgan v. Publix Super Markets Inc., Supreme Court of Alabama, Special Term 2013, Appeal from Jefferson Circuit Court