Magazine article Drug Topics

Two High Courts Uphold Pharmacists' Duty to Warn

Magazine article Drug Topics

Two High Courts Uphold Pharmacists' Duty to Warn

Article excerpt


The highest courts in Illinois and Massachusetts both ruled within days of each other that pharmacists have certain duties to protect patients from potential harm caused by their medications.

In the case of Happel v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed that if a pharmacy collects information about a patient's allergies, it has a duty to warn of contraindications. In the case of Cottam v. CVS Pharmacy, the Massachusetts high court ruled that if a patient believes that a list of possible side effects is complete, the pharmacy has a duty to make sure that the list is, in fact, comprehensive.

The Massachusetts high court upheld a lower court verdict that awarded Robert Cottam damages of $357,000. The damage amount had been reduced because the jury blamed 49% of the negligence on him and the other 51% on CVS. The plaintiff had settled out of court with his prescribing physician and therapist.

Cottam had alleged that he suffered permanent damage and impotence from priapism triggered by the trazodone he had been prescribed for depression in 1994. He contended that when a CVS pharmacy in Reading, Mass., filled his Rx, the pharmacist gave him only a short list of possible side effects and warned only that the drug could cause drowsiness. He alleged that he was not warned about the risk of priapism.

The Massachusetts decision concerned the scope of duty to warn that's voluntarily undertaken by a pharmacy. The court said that such a duty is based on the pharmacy's entire communications with the patient and the patient's understanding of that communication. For example, if a pharmacy applies only one warning label, such as "take with food," a reasonable patient could not construe it as a comprehensive warning.

However, if the pharmacy provides more information, as in Cottam v. CVS Pharmacy, the court said, "the patient could reasonably interpret the warning form as a complete and comprehensive list of all known side effects, it is appropriate to impose on the pharmacy a duty commensurate with what it appeared to have undertaken. Where a pharmacy provides a more detailed list of warnings or, by way of advertising, promises to provide customers with information, it may thereby undertake a duty to provide complete warnings and information."

Pharmacists and pharmacy owners don't have to hit the panic button because the Massachusetts verdict does not say they have a duty to provide a list of all side effects, said David Brushwood, R. …

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