Fentanyl has caused an increasing number of wrongful deaths across Alabama and the entire nation in recent years. This synthetic opioid drug, prescribed for pain relief, is almost 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fentanyl is also 100 times stronger than morphine and, along with other synthetic opioid drugs, has caused more overdoses than any other type or class of drugs.
Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, claim more than 150 lives every day due to overdose.
Fentanyl poses several significant risks to patients, making it essential that medical professionals closely monitor patients while they’re using the prescribed drug. Due to the drug’s extreme potency, the potential for wrongful death exists alongside other serious issues. Fentanyl can cause depressed respiration and other life-threatening symptoms, and even small amounts can cause respiratory failure, coma and death by overdose in some individuals.
Patients using fentanyl for prolonged periods can develop a tolerance and become dependent on or addicted to the drug. Fentanyl also causes withdrawal symptoms if patients do not properly taper off it under medical supervision.
What is fentanyl prescribed for?
Doctors typically prescribe fentanyl to manage severe or chronic pain. Fentanyl blocks the brain’s pain receptors, and health care providers administer it to patients for the treatment of post-surgical pain, chronic pain, advanced-stage cancer and certain conditions that do not respond to other types of pain-relief medications.
Fentanyl is often delivered using pain patches to ensure patients receive safe dosages of the drug. Medical providers can also provide the drug via injection.
What are the risks and complications of fentanyl use?
Fentanyl patches contain a gel designed for steady release over a series of days. Some patients have filed defective drug lawsuits after suffering from manufacturing defects that allowed the gel to leak, delivering the drug in a heavy dose that resulted in respiratory depression, serious injury and several deaths. Using the patch for too long or ingesting it can result in the same outcomes.
Because fentanyl is a prescription medication, some patients may falsely assume the medication is safe as long as it’s taken as directed. However, differences in body biochemistry, incorrect doses, and other issues can cause preventable overdose deaths.
For example, patients may not be aware that certain actions or conditions can trigger a dangerous increase in the amount of fentanyl in their body or intensify its effects, such as:
- Drinking alcohol
- Being exposed to heat or rising temperatures
- Using other medications that impact the way fentanyl is broken down in their body
- Using other medications that cause sleepiness or affect the brain, such as muscle relaxers, cold medicine, seizure medicine, depression or anxiety medications, and other pain medications
What are the signs of a fentanyl overdose?
Individuals can potentially save a life by recognizing the symptoms of a fentanyl overdose and taking action immediately. Overdose symptoms include:
- Pupils that look like pinpoints
- Loss of consciousness or suddenly falling asleep
- Weak, slow or no breathing activity
- Choking or gurgling
- Body becomes limp
- Skin feels cold or clammy
- Discolored skin, such as blue or purple lips and fingernails
If you notice signs of a possible overdose, call 911 immediately and attempt to keep the individual awake, breathing and lying on their side so they don’t choke. Administer naloxone (Narcan) if available to reverse the effects of the opioid and stay with the person until emergency help arrives.
In most states, including Alabama, Good Samaritan laws protect the individual who administers naloxone or calls for help from legal action.
Snapchat and fentanyl overdoses
In January 2024, a California judge allowed a lawsuit to move forward against Snap, the company that owns the social media platform and messaging platform called Snapchat. The suit was filed by relatives of more than 60 young individuals who have died from fentanyl overdoses.
The suit alleges that Snap’s disappearing message feature provided the means for trading in illicit drugs, indicating that the Snap product was defective. Social media companies typically receive protection from such claims under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
However, the lawsuit against Snap seeks compensatory and punitive damages based on other factors outside the aspects of the Act.
The judge dismissed some of the suit’s claims, including interference with parental rights, aiding drug dealers, and public nuisance, but upheld claims of negligence, misrepresentation, defective product and wrongful death.
This suit is a first for a social media company facing claims of facilitating illegal and fatal drug sales. Snap says it is working on ways to combat drug abuse on its platform. However, the plaintiffs argue that the company could do more to enhance the safety of its young users, and the lawsuit advocates for increased oversight over children’s activities on the Internet.
When can you sue for wrongful death related to a fentanyl overdose?
When certain circumstances exist regarding an individual’s overdose of fentanyl, the surviving family has grounds to initiate a lawsuit for wrongful death. The legal concept of wrongful death means that a person’s death from a fentanyl overdose was due to the legal fault of someone else.
Families can sue for wrongful death related to a prescription fentanyl overdose in several scenarios, each involving some form of error or negligence. Here are key situations where a lawsuit may be viable:
- Mislabeled drugs. If the fentanyl was incorrectly labeled, leading to an overdose, families may have grounds for a lawsuit. This includes errors in dosage instructions or failing to clearly indicate the drug’s potency.
- Failure to warn about side effects. Health care providers and pharmaceutical companies are obligated to warn patients about the potential side effects of medications. If they fail to adequately inform them about the risks of fentanyl, including its addictive nature and overdose risks, they might be liable.
- Incorrect dosage prescription or filling. If a doctor prescribes an incorrect dosage or a pharmacy fills a prescription with the wrong dosage, and this leads to an overdose, the family may sue for wrongful death.
- Inadequate labeling of risks and side effects. Similar to failing to warn about side effects, if the drug’s labeling does not properly inform about all risks and side effects, this could be grounds for a lawsuit.
- Failure to provide a lower-risk alternative. If there was a safer, equally effective medication available and the health care provider did not consider prescribing it, this might constitute negligence.
- Prescribing high-count or long-term prescriptions without proper monitoring. Overprescribing or a lack of adequate monitoring can lead to addiction and overdose. If a health care provider does not appropriately manage the prescription, they could be held responsible.
- Failure to treat addiction or provide resources. If a health care provider continues to prescribe fentanyl to a patient showing signs of addiction without offering help or resources for addiction treatment, this could be considered negligent.
- Refilling prescriptions for a patient with obvious issues related to the drug. Continuously refilling a fentanyl prescription for a patient who is clearly struggling with the drug’s effects or showing signs of misuse can be a basis for a wrongful death claim.
- Prescribing to patients with a history of addiction or substance misuse. If a health care provider prescribes fentanyl to a patient with a known history of addiction or substance misuse without taking proper precautions, this can be seen as negligent.
In all these scenarios, the key factor is proving that the overdose and resulting death were directly caused by someone else’s negligence or wrongdoing. Families considering such a lawsuit should consult with an experienced wrongful death attorney to understand their legal rights and the specifics of their case, especially considering the complexities of medical and pharmaceutical laws.
Who can sue for wrongful death in Alabama?
In a wrongful death suit, because the deceased cannot seek compensation from the party that caused them injury, someone else must file the claim on their behalf. In Alabama, the person who can sue depends on whether the deceased was an adult or minor at the time of their death.
In Alabama, if the deceased was an adult, the only person who can sue on their behalf is their personal representative. In other states, this person is called an executor, and the deceased must have given them responsibility for their estate while still living. Family members are allowed to file a wrongful death suit in other states; however, in Alabama, only the individual’s personal representative may file a wrongful death lawsuit.
If the deceased is under the age of 19, Alabama laws give the mother or father 6 months from the child’s date of death to file a wrongful death suit. After 6 months, a suit can only be filed by the child’s personal representative.
Can a family sue for an accidental overdose if their child bought drugs laced with fentanyl and later died?
If a family experiences the tragic loss of a child due to an accidental overdose from drugs laced with fentanyl, the possibility of legal action does exist, but it is more complex and depends on various factors.
If it can be identified who sold or provided the laced drugs, the family might have the option to sue that individual. This can be challenging, as identifying and proving the dealer’s responsibility in court can be difficult. However, if successful, the dealer could be held liable for wrongful death.
In some cases, if the drugs were obtained through a social media platform or an app, and if it can be proven that the platform facilitated the sale and did not take reasonable measures to prevent such transactions, there might be a potential for legal action.
While criminal charges against those responsible for providing the drugs are more common, civil suits are also an option. The burden of proof is lower in civil cases (preponderance of the evidence) compared to criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt).
It’s important to note that these legal actions can be very complex and vary greatly depending on the specifics of the case and the jurisdiction. Families considering legal action in such tragic circumstances should consult with a lawyer who specializes in wrongful death and personal injury law who can provide guidance tailored to the specific circumstances of the case, including an understanding of state laws and the legal precedents that might apply.
What is the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Alabama?
If you want to file a wrongful death claim for your loved one in Alabama, you must take action within a defined time period, called the statute of limitations. This period runs from the date of the individual’s death and spans 2 years.
Wrongful death cases can become complex and take significant time to gather data and evidence to support your case, so the sooner you seek legal assistance, the better chance you have of obtaining a successful outcome.
Get legal help from an experienced Alabama wrongful death injury attorney
Losing a loved one is a heart-wrenching ordeal that is often all the more difficult in situations involving drugs like fentanyl where the death could have been prevented. At Nomberg Law Firm in Birmingham, Alabama, we’re committed to guiding you through this difficult time.
Our experienced personal injury attorneys specialize in wrongful death cases involving harmful drugs and are here to help you understand your legal rights and options, ensuring that justice is served for your loved one.
Please reach out to us for compassionate and knowledgeable legal support in these challenging times by scheduling a free consultation.